|Book Summary -- Things Fall Apart
Things Fall Apart is Chinua Achebe’s first novel and was published in 1958, a time often called the Nigerian Renaissance because in that period a large number of very strong Nigerian writers began to create a powerful new literature that drew on the traditional oral literature, European literature, and the changing times in Nigeria and in Africa at large. Writers as varied as Ben Okri and Wole Soyinka developed in the context of the ideas and energy of the Nigerian Renaissance, but Achebe is considered one of the earliest and best novelists to have come out of modern Nigeria, in fact one of the top English-speaking novelists of his time anywhere.
In 1958 much of Africa was still under the colonialist yoke, although a few countries (most notably Ghana) had already achieved independence. Set in a time of great change for Africans, Achebe’s novels illuminate two painful features of modern African life: the humiliations visited on Africans by colonialism, and the corruption and inefficiency of what replaced colonial rule. Things Fall Apart in particular focuses on the early experience of colonialism as it occurred in Nigeria in the late 1800’s, from the first days of contact with the British to widespread British administration. Achebe is interested in showing Ibo society in the period of transition when rooted, traditional values are put in conflict with an alien and more powerful culture that will tear them apart. Achebe paints a vivid picture of Ibo society both before and after the arrival of white men, and avoids the temptation to idealize either culture. In this context, he believes that the novelist must have a social commitment: “The writer cannot be excused from the task of re-education and regeneration that must be done…I for one would not wish to be excused. I would be quite satisfied if my novels (especially the ones I set in the past) did no more than just teach my readers [Africans] that their past—with all its imperfections—was not one long night of savagery from which the Europeans acting on God’s behalf delivered them.”
OKONKWO is the central character of this novel. A strong, proud, capable man, throughout the novel he attempts to compensate for the experience of being the son of what he calls his “worthless” father—Unoka, a weak-willed, indebted, flute-playing, charming, impoverished, and irresponsible man who left Okonkwo no inheritance and achieved no titles of rank in the tribe. Okonkwo greatly prizes masculine virtues. He gains fame as a young man by defeating a famous wrestler, and has always been one of the blood-thirstiest and most successful warriors when the village went to war. Okonkwo wins a great deal of wealth by working hard and share-cropping until he can afford his own land and crops. His major flaw is his violence, short-temper, and proud inability to adapt to change. He is expelled from the village for committing a sin against the goddess of the earth, Ani—he accidentally kills a sixteen year old boy during the wild celebrations of the boy’s father’s funeral. As is the custom, his neighbors raze his land and he departs to his mother’s village to live and farm there for seven years until his term of exile has elapsed. During his absence, however, white men encroach on the village and a missionary establishes a church and school there. Okonkwo’s own son defects to the missionaries, and when he returns it is impossible to regain the noble stature that he was on his way to enjoying when he left. Okonkwo is bitterly disappointed and cannot adapt to the new conditions—he constantly encourages violence against the missionaries and the stealthily installed British administration. After a riot caused by the dishonoring of a traditional spirit-dancer by a British convert, Okonkwo is one of the men who go to the British administration to discuss the issue. He and the others are locked up, humiliated, and ransomed to the village by the British. Okonkwo goes to a meeting where the village is meeting to a discuss a reponse to the outrage, but when messengers paid by the British show up to spy on and disband the meeting, Okonkwo loses his temper and kills one of the messengers. No one else follows his lead. Knowing he has lost any place he might have had in this new society, he goes back to his compound and hangs himself.
EKWEFI is Okonkwo’s third wife. She married him for love—she left a first husband to do so. So many of the children born to her by Okonkwo died at a young age that the tribe decided her womb was haunted by a kind of evil child-spirit which keeps dying in order to return to the mother’s womb and repeat the cycle. Finally she has a daughter named Ezinma who lasts for longer than the others, and she falls desperately in love with this daughter in a way she has not allowed herself to do anymore with the other babies. The senior priest conducts a sort of exorcism of Ezinma when she is older, and Ekwefi watches over her like a hawk, often has her sleep in her bed, and allows her treats that other children are not allowed. When Ezinma is carried off temporarily one night by Chielo, the priestess of the Oracle, Ekwefi follows all night and waits desperately outside the cave until Ezinma is allowed out. Ekwefi is brave and determined—she is the most dramatic and passionate of Okonkwo’s wives.
NWOYE is Okonkwo’s eldest son: twelve at the beginning of the novel, and a young man by the end. He is a close friend of Ikemefuna, the boy-hostage from another village who lives with Okonkwo’s family for three years until the village elders decide that he should be taken out of the village and killed to appease the earth goddess. Nwoye never fully recovers from Ikemefuna’s death, which is particularly traumatic for him since his father dealt the final blow that killed Ikemefuna. Nwoye loves his mother’s folktales and is never as masculine or decisive as his father would wish, even though he became more so when Ikemefuna lived in the compound. When the missionaries arrive he is captivated by their stories and hymns, and repelled by the fear and sorrow he associates with the traditional religion. He converts despite being disowned by his father, and leaves his home to go to the missionary’s school, where he learns to read and write.
UCHENDU is Okonkwo’s senior kinsman in his mother’s homeland, and he welcomes Okonkwo and his family when they seek refuge in exile. He is a strong patriarch who also understands the importance of mothers and the female principle; he lectures to Okonkwo about this when Okonkwo seems to be despairing in his exile from Umuofia. Uchendu is a representative of the old, traditional system of life which is disappearing under the encroachments of the British. He has a great knowledge of the past and the clan’s spiritual tradition, and possesses an integrity and wisdom which all respect.
MR. BROWN is the first missionary to settle in the area—he sets up his main school and church in Umuofia and sends a trusted Igbo convert, Mr. Kiaga, to start another church in Mbanta. Mr. Brown is a strong believer but also a kindly and accommodating man who makes many of his converts through hymn-singing. Brown tries to live in harmony with the elders of the village. He has several long respectful philosophical discussions with an elder in another village who is very knowledgeable and wise in the ways of the Igbo religion, and who eventually presents him with an elephant tusk as a sign of honor. Mr. Brown tries to convince people to attend his school even if they do not wish to convert because, as he explains to them, literacy will be the key to any sort of economic independence in the future. He is respected by all the villagers, including the ones who decide not to convert.
REVEREND JAMES SMITH is the successor to Mr. Brown, and he is an exacting, stern, and aggressive man who exacerbates the tension between the village elders and the mission. “He condemned openly 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 mortal conflict with the sons of darkness.” (Chapter 22.) Reverend Smith aids and abets the colonialist administration which is beginning to appear on Igbo territory, most importantly after the stand-off between himself and the Igbo religious dancers who come to destroy his church in order to avenge an insult to their religion made by one of the Christian converts. Smith is courageous enough to walk out and speak to the screaming dancers, but when he can’t convince them not to tear down the church he brings the British administrators in to intervene brutally and punish the village.
Points to Ponder
Achebe’s title Things Fall Apart comes from a poem by W. B. Yeats called “The Second Coming.” (The first four lines of the poem are: “Turning and turning in the widening gyre / The falcon cannot hew the falconer / Things fall apart; the center cannot hold; / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.) It’s pretty obvious how the words Achebe chose are relevant, but how does the rest of the poem apply to his novel? What is the novelist’s attitude to change, seen through the lens of this poem? Do you see any irony in the relationship between the poem’s Christian language and the missionary presence in Umuofia? At what point does the disintegration of Umuofia society seem ineluctable?
Achebe’s language in this novel is a mixture of English, Ibo proverbs and untranslated words, and of course a title taken from the poem “The Second Coming” by Yeats. What is the effect of this mixture? What might this suggest about Achebe’s relationship to European literature? What do you make of the switch in point of view from Okonkwo and his family to the British Commissioner that occurs on the last page of the book? What are the implications of the relationship between the book that the Commissioner projects writing on the last page, and the novel Achebe has written?
In many ways Okonkwo resembles the hero of a Greek epic. What is his tragic flaw? Is Okonkwo representative of his society—how much of his story could be read as symbolic? Is Okonkwo a sympathetic or unsympathetic character? Okonkwo often fails to reconcile the male and female virtues as they are understood in Umuofia society, and that plays into the fact that all the disasters which happen to him result from his offenses against the mother goddess, the earth. How does this relate to the larger plot in the novel, and to Okonkwo’s final end?
According to Chinua Achebe, the African writer must be involved in the task of decolonializing the minds of his or her fellow Africans in the struggle against (neo)colonialism. In his essay Hopes and Impediments, he writes: “The writer cannot be excused from the task of re-education and regeneration that must be done…I for one would not wish to be excused. I would be quite satisfied if my novels (especially the ones I set in the past) did more than just teach my readers [Africans] that their past—with all its imperfections—was not one long night of savagery from which the Europeans acting on God’s behalf delivered them.” In your view, how well does Achebe succeed in this goal?
What are the roles of women in this novel? Igbo thought conspicuously uses a metaphor of masculinity and femininity in its principle of balance—male and female categorize farming crops, types of crimes in the society, kinship structures, story-telling, religious rites, and of course social roles. Women are treated like property in this society, and yet the most important goddess of the society, Ani the earth goddess, is female. Ekwefi, Okonkwo’s second wife, is able to desert her first husband and marry Okonkwo for love. What do you make of these contradictions? Is Okonkwo’s fall in some way an indicator of the perils of an African machismo—a lack of a moderating female principle—at play in the society?
Did You Know?
Interestingly enough, Achebe’s own biography falls closer to the experience of the invasive Christian converts than the traditional Ibo friends and family of Okonkwo from whose point of view he so sympathetically writes this novel. Achebe wrote in 1969: “On looking back, if I had an advantage, it was that my father was a retired missionary when I was growing up; we were Christians and in our village you had two sides—the ‘people of the Church’ as we were called, and the ‘people of the world,’ the others. Although we were in the same village there was a certain distance which I think made it possible for me not to take things for granted. I say this because some of the people who grew up with me, whose parents were heathen, as we called them, these things did not strike them. At least that is what they tell me today—they took things for granted.”
Didactic animal fables appear in almost all of Achebe’s novels. In fact, the story of the little bird Nza which illustrates the idea that humans should never provoke their fate, shows up in both Things Fall Apart and Achebe’s masterpiece, Arrow of God. To really understand Achebe’s work, you might want to read through a book of Nigerian folk tales.
Things Fall Apart is set in Umuofia, the hometown of Okonkwo, a proud, angry, and hard-working man in his prime. Okonkwo has always felt a need to prove himself because he is the son of a failure, a man named Unoka who was heavily in debt because he preferred playing his flute and drinking palm wine to farming. Okonkwo first established himself as a man to be reckoned with by beating the famous wrestler Amalinze the Cat in a match at the tender age of 18. He provides for himself and his mother and sisters economically by share-cropping yams for a wealthy neighbor until he makes enough profits to get land and seeds and start his own farm. He does well enough that by the beginning of the novel he has three wives, a large compound with huts for each of them as well as a separate one for himself, and a large and growing family. His ambition is to take the highest titles of honor that his tribe can bestow.
Okonkwo is known for his bad temper and his willingness to be rude to unsuccessful men. At one point his temper also made him guilty of an offense against the earth goddess, because he forgot that the village was celebrating the Week of Peace and beat his youngest wife during the holy festival. The goddess’ priest prescribed a series of sacrifices and penance for him to perform.
One day Okonkwo’s village sends a challenge to a neighboring village because they caused the death of an Umuofia woman who had gone to market there. This village fears Umuofia enough to pay a recompense of one virgin and a young boy instead of going to war. Umuofia’s elders decide that the virgin will marry the husband of the slaughtered woman and the youth will stay in Okonkwo’s household until they reach a final decision about what to do with him. The boy’s name in Ikemefuna, and he becomes good friends with Nwoye, Okonkwo’s eldest son. Ikemefuna is clever and loved by everyone in the household. When Ikemefuna has lived with Okonkwo’s family for three years, the elders finally reach their decision and say that Ikemefuna must be killed. He is marched in a procession, told that he is going back to his original village, and then deep in the woods one of the villagers hits him with a machete. The blow isn’t fatal, and he runs in fear to Okonkwo, calling him father and asking him for protection. Afraid of being thought weak, Okonkwo strikes the boy down.
Okonkwo grieves deeply for three days after the death of Ikemefuna. Others tell him that it was a very bad omen for him to strike the killing blow. Slowly he forgets about it and participates in the ceremonial and economic affairs of the village, although the event marks his son Nwoye very deeply.
Okonkwo has another child, Ezinma, whom he cares about very deeply and wishes she were a boy because of her strong and decisive character. Ezinma is the only child of Ekwefi, Okonkwo’s second wife, who deserted her first husband and married him for love. Ekwefi’s first nine children died before reaching the age of five. The priests believed that she was afflicted by an ogbanje, or a child-spirit which loves to die repeatedly so that it can re-enter its mother’s womb over and over instead of exiting and growing up. Ekwefi is depressed for the first five or so years of Ezinma’s life, until it looks like she is a survivor, and then she becomes extremely loving and anxious of Ezinma. She has a priest perform a sort of exorcism of the evil spirit on Ezinma. When the priestess of the local Oracle mysteriously comes and carries Ezinma away on her back for one night, without giving any explanation, Ekwefi follows the Oracle all night like a madwoman and waits outside her cave until her child is re-delivered to her.
Shortly after this incident, the village celebrates the funeral of Ezeudu, a great man in the village and a priest of the earth goddess. It is a huge ceremony, and the egwugwu—masked dancers who represent the spiritual ancestors of the clan—participate in the ritual. All the men fire their guns in a final salute to Ezeudu. In the middle of the ruckus, Ezeudu’s sixteen year old son accidentally catches a bullet fired by Okonkwo’s gun. Okonkwo must flee the village for seven years because he has committed a crime against the earth. His friends quickly pack his yam crop into their barns and then he and his families pack valuables into bundles they will carry on their heads and flee to his mother’s home. The men of the village come to his compound the next day and destroy it as penance.
Okonkwo is kindly received by Uchendu, his mother’s eldest kinsmen, and lent yam seeds and land to farm. Okonkwo feels very depressed because he can no longer reach the highest titles in the land. However, he is reproved for his sorrow by Uchendu, who lectures him on the importance of mothers and the fellowship of kinspeople. Okonkwo does well in these years, and when it is time for him to leave he throws a huge feast of thanks for his mother’s clan.
When he returns to Umuofia, he sees that the white missionaries who visited Mbanta, his motherland, have really taken root in Umuofia. They have established a school there and a trading post. So far only weak men have converted, but as the missionaries prove their endurance more wealthy and upstanding people join them. His eldest son Nwoye converts, and leaves the household for good.
The first missionary in Umuofia is a highly religious but kindly man named Mr. Brown who practices accommodation and tolerance in his cohabitation with the villagers. His health gives out, and he is succeeded by the Reverend James Smith, a rigid man who is intolerant of local traditions and thinks of the world as a battleground between good and evil. Smith encourages the most provocative of his new converts, including a man named Enoch who commits an act of sacrilege against the traditional religion: he unmasks one of the dancing spirits representing the clan’s ancestors. The Mother of the Spirits walks the earth that night, mourning and emitting a bone-chilling wail.
To purify the village, the villagers go with the dancing masked spirits and destroy first Enoch’s compound, and then the church building. They spare Reverend Smith, who comes out to protect his church. He, however, does not appreciate their gesture and calls in the British administrator to imprison the heads of the village until the villagers pay a large fine. These elders, including Okonkwo, are beaten and shaved in captivity. When they are released, they meet to plan their next move. Okonkwo is finally happy because they seem to be considering war. However, the British administrator sends some of his African officers to spy on the meeting and break it up. Okonkwo loses his temper and kills one of the messengers. No-one else follows his lead. In despair, he returns to his compound and hangs himself—a final desecration of the earth goddess. Suicide is such an unclean act that none of the villagers can cut his body down; they must ask the British administrator who has come to arrest Okonkwo to bury him.
At this point the book switches to the point of the Commissioner. He feels vaguely impressed by the incident and decides that it would be worth including in his memoirs—perhaps a full page, perhaps only a paragraph, since there was already so much to include. He plans, after much thought, to call the book: The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger.
Okonkwo is a self-made man, known for his personal achievements and his heroic feat at age 18 of throwing Amalinze the Cat, a famous wrestler from another village who had gone unbeaten for seven years. Okonkwo is a sleek, powerful man who gets violent when angry. He has a constant desire to prove himself because he is the son of an unsuccessful man: Unoka, a lazy and improvident palm-wine drinker and flute-payer in debt to most of the village. Unoka’s band was famous in the area, and he found a spiritual joy in music, but very poor and his wife and children had barely enough to eat. When a friend named Okoye once came to ask back money that Unoka had borrowed, Unoka laughed and refused, shamelessly showing him his huge pile of debt. When Unoka finally died, Unoka was heavily in debt and had taken no title (people pay for the honor of getting certain titles in this village, which is called Umuofia.) His son Okonkwo therefore had to prove his own worth, which he did by becoming the greatest wrestler in nine villages, marrying three wives, farming successfully, showing prowess in war, and taking two tribal titles. Okonkwo is now one of the greatest men of his time, due entirely to his own achievement: “As the elders said, if a child washed his hands he could eat with kings.”
Okonkwo is about to fall asleep when he hears the town crier call a meeting. After the call, the night is dark and silent and feels dangerous, unlike other moonlit nights when children play and lovers find a secluded spot. Okonkwo wonders if there has been a challenge from another village—he is a fearless warrior who has brought back five human heads from wars and drinks palm wine from his first skull on great occasions. At the town meeting the next day, it turns out that people from the neighboring village of Mbaino killed a Umuofia woman when she went to market at their town. Okonkwo’s village democratically decides to send an ultimatum to Mbaino offering them a choice between war or giving up a young man and a virgin as compensation. The village of Umuofia is feared in the region because it has a powerful war-medicine, called agadi-nwayi, whose active principle is (the spirit of) an old woman with one leg. Since Umuofia is proposing a just war—one that the Oracle of the Hills and Caves would regard as just—this dreaded agadi-nwayi would fight for them and most surrounding villages would not want to risk such a war. Okonkwo is chosen as the emissary to Mbaino and returns with the compensation: a youth (fifteen year old Ikemefuna) and a virgin. The village elders give the virgin to the husband of the murdered woman, Ogbuefi Udo, to replace his wife, and ask Okonkwo to look after the boy (Ikemefuna) in his household until they decide what his fate should be.
Okonkwo’s household is a harsh place because Okonkwo is desperately afraid of failure and avoids all qualities (such as gentleness and idleness) which once characterized his father. Okonkwo still remembers when a playmate first told him that the word agbala means both “woman” and “a man without any title,” like his father. He makes everyone in his own family work painfully long hours at farming, particularly his first son Nwoye, who he fears might be lazy. Okonkwo hands the hostage, Ikemefuna, over to his most senior wife that night and orders her to look after him. Ikemefuna is terribly afraid and does not know why he has been taken away or what is happening.
A story is told in Umuofia about Okonkwo’s father, Unoka, and his visit to the Oracle to find out why he always had a miserable harvest. The Oracle is named Agbala and is always consulted in misfortunes. This Oracle lives in a shrine in a cave with an opening just big enough to crawl into on one’s belly, and his priestess stands by the sacred fire and interprets the will of the god. When Unoka arrived there, he began to tell of his bad luck despite sacrificing to the gods, but the priestess interrupted him to scream that he didn’t prosper simply because he was lazy and did not work like a man. Unoki had a bad chi or personal god and was ill-fated. He died of “the swelling which is an abomination to the earth goddess”; victims of this disease were not allowed to die at home and instead were abandoned in the forest, unburied. Unoki took his flute with him when he was led out to die.
Okonkwo was possessed by the fear of his father’s shameful life and death. He contracted to work for a wealthy man named Nwakibie, after going through a ritual of breaking a kola nut and drinking palm wine with the man’s family. Okonkwo receives 800 yam seeds from Nwakibie in exchange for giving him two thirds of the harvest, and eventually manages to rebuild his father’s barn and feed his mother and sisters while share-cropping for Nwakibie. (They worked hard but grew women’s crops like coco-yams, beans, and cassava, not yam, which was a man’s crop.) That first year, however, there is first a drought and then a flood, and no farmer has a good crop. Okonkwo nearly despairs, and Unoki offers him words of consoling wisdom which aggravate Okonkwo still more.
Okonkwo can be very harsh to unsuccessful men because he has worked so hard. At an ancestral feast, he is reproved by the entire gathering and encouraged to apologize because he called a man without any titles “agbala”—the insulting word which a playmate had once called Okonkwo’s father. Everyone respects the hard work of Okonkwo, however, and give him positions of trust.
The village’s hostage, Ikemefuna, stays in Okonkwo’s household for three years while the elders apparently forget about him. Okonkwo’s wife is very kind to him, but he still misses his family: during the first few weeks, Okonkwo has to threaten him with a stick before he will eat in his new home. Ikemefuna is lively and has clever skills, and becomes very popular, even with Okonkwo, who tries to hide his affection.
That year Okonkwo breaks a holiday called the Week of Peace, which occurs in the carefree season between harvest and planting. His youngest wife, Ojiugo, doesn’t prepare dinner on time and so he beats her when she returns home, forgetting it is the sacred Week of Peace. The neighbors hear, and Ezeani, the priest of the Earth goddess Ani, warns Okonkwo that his sacrilege could harm the harvest and orders him to make a large sacrifice in penitence. Okonkwo sacrifices and repents, but is too proud inwardly to admit to his neighbors that he was wrong, which makes the other villagers think he has no respect for the gods. His offence is a rare and serious one, so they mutter that he was not punished enough.
Okonkwo, his son Nwoye, and Ikemefuna prepare yam seeds for planting. Okonkwo berates them for not being more skilled at the job, especially since yams are a symbol of manliness, even though he knows they are too young to be perfectly skilled at the task. After they plant the rainy season begins, and everyone stays indoors waiting for the crops to grow and the rains to stop. Nwoye and Ikemefuna become extremely close, and Ikemefuna tells Nwoye many stories and vivid folk tales from his home clan.
The Feast of the New Yam approaches, an occasion for giving thanks to Ani, the Earth goddess. Ani is the most important local deity because she is a source of fertility, arbiter of morality, and in close contact with dead ancestors of the clan. The New Yam Festival is the beginning of the new year, and a time of feasting with many guests. Okonkwo has never felt enthusiastic about feasts, however. He would prefer to be working and beats a wife for cutting off leaves from a banana tree then goes hunting to vent his frustration. The beaten wife mutters something about guns that never go off and Okonkwo runs into the room and discharges the gun in her face. Luckily, no-one is hurt and the Yam Festival proceeds.
Ekwefi, the second wife that Okonkwo nearly shot, originally fell in love with him and ran away from her husband to marry him because she adores wrestling. She prepares the evening meal very quickly the next day because the second day of the Yam Festival is a wrestling ceremony, and she and Okonkwo don’t want to miss it. She sends her daughter, Ezinma, who is a favorite with her father, to give fire to the most senior wife and to bring her yams for cooking. The other children including little Obiageli who has broken her pot, return from fetching water and everyone eats the evening meal. Each wife brings a separate dish to Okonkwo.
The whole village shows up at the ilo, or playground, which has been transformed into a circular wrestling arena with a few wood bleachers. Most people stand and listen to the intoxicating rhythms of the drummers, who are possessed by the spirit of the drums. Eventually the two wrestling teams dance into the ring and opening bouts commence between young boys. On the sidelines, Ekwefi (Okonkwo’s second wife) has a conversation with her friend Chielo, the priestess of the Oracle, who is fond of Ezinma and says she thinks Ezinma will survive to adulthood.
The wrestling teams face each other across the ring, twelve to a side. Young men dance out one-by-one to challenge a person from the other side, and wrestle. There are two judges. The last match is between the leader of the teams, who are very evenly matched. Their contest is fierce, until one miscalculates and the other, Okafo, wins. His supporters sing a song in his praise.
Ikemefuna has lived in Okonkwo’s household for three years, and has had a very positive influence on Nwoye—the younger boy is now much more masculine, and feigns grumbling but is inwardly delighted when asked to do difficult masculine tasks such as chop wood for one of Okonkwo’s wives. Okonkwo is very pleased at the change, since he sees it as of key importance to be able to control women-folk. He encourages the boys to sit in his obi or hut as he tells them masculine stories of violence, bloodshed, and local history. Nwoye knows it is important to be a man but secretly prefers his mother’s stories—particularly one of a quarrel between the Earth and Sky in which a Vulture is sent to plead for rain from the Sky with a song of suffering of the sons of men.
That year the locusts descend on the village while Okonkwo and the boys are working in the fields. Everyone feels joy because it is a sight full of power and beauty—only the oldest in the village can remember the last time the locusts came. When dew falls and wets the insects’ wings, everyone goes out to catch locusts by the dozen and roast and eat them. Some days later, while Okonkwo is happily crunching a locust, the respected elder Ogbuefi Ezeudu comes to the hut and asks to have a word with Okonkwo outside. He warns Okonkwo that the Oracle has decided that Ikemefuna must be killed, and tells Okonkwo not to have a hand in it because the boy calls him father.
The next day a group of elders visit Okonkwo. He tells Ikemefuna he is to be taken home the next day, and Nwoye bursts into tears. Ikemefuna can barely remember his home, but has a bad premonition. A procession of finely dressed men with sheathed machetes arrive from the village, and Okonkwo and Ikemefuna join them. Ikemefuna carries a jar of palm-wine on his head, and the men have him walk in the middle. Ikemefuna’s mind wanders to his original family. The men discourage him from glancing behind his shoulder, and he grows afraid. Finally, a villager cuts him down from behind with a machete. He runs to Okonkwo, shouting, “My father, they have killed me,” and Okonkwo delivers the final blow, dazed and afraid of being thought weak.
When Okonkwo walks in that night, Nwoye knows that Ikemefuna is dead, and something snaps inside him.
Okonkwo does not eat for the next two days—all he does is drink palm wine. He can’t sleep at night, and Nwoye is scared of him and slips away from his father’s obi. Finally Ezinma brings him food and his snuff equipment. He thinks to himself several times that she should have been a boy. Okonkwo wishes he could work to distract himself, but it’s the wrong season so he goes to visit his friend Obierika instead. At first he talks about his worry that Nwoye is not manly enough, but then they reach the subject of Ikemefuna, and his friend tells him that killing the boy who called him father displeases the Earth. In the middle of their conversation, a third man rushes in to tell the of the death of an old man in the neighboring village, and the immediate, apparently self-willed, death of his oldest wife right after she paid her last respects to her husband.
Okonkwo begins to feel better thanks to the change of subject, and decides to go tap some of his palm trees. Obierika reminds him to come to the bride-price negotiations for his daughter that evening. When Okonkwo returns, the twenty-five year old suitor and his family are there, and Akueke, the ripe young sixteen year old bride, is summoned to bring kola nuts to the men. She shakes hands, then leaves to help her mother cook, and there is an erotic description of her removing her waist beads so that they don’t fall in the fire. Back in the men’s hut, the suitor’s father and Obierika use a bundle of broomsticks to negotiate a price of twenty cowries for Akueke. Then they tell jokes, including one that involves punning the word for “white man” with “leper.”
That night Okonkwo is able to sleep, and begins to wonder why he had been uneasy before. The next morning Ekwefi pounds on his door to say that Ezinma is dying. Okonkwo rushes out to visit her, then to collect medicinal grasses.
Ezinma is an only child and the center of her mother’s world. She calls her mother by her first name and is secretly fed eggs, a delicacy that children are almost never given because it’s believed it might encourage them to steal. Ekwefi has buried nine children, and her despair found expression in some of the names she gave them: Onwumbiko (“Death, I implore you”), Ozoemena (“May it not happen again”), Onwuma (“Death may please himself”). The medicine man even determined that she had an ogbanje, one of those wicked children who die so as to enter their mothers’ wombs to be born again. He dragged one child’s dead body to the Evil Forest to discourage the spirit. When other wives had children, Ekwefi would be depressed. When Ezinma was born, she was listless until Ezinma was four or five, and seemed to be a survivor. Then Ekwefi became loving and anxious.
When Ezinma is old enough, the medicine man digs up Ezinma’s iyi-uwa, a charm associated with her ogbanje status, by putting her in a trance and making her lead him to it. The medicine man digs for a long time at the spot she indicates, and finally turns up a rag with a shiny round pebble in it, which Ezinma admits is hers. She has been well for a year since then; this is the first time she has become sick.
Okonkwo brings back the herbs, tells Ekwefi to start a boiling pot of water, throws the medicinal plants in, and puts Ezinma astride the pot on a stool. He covers her with a mat and makes her stay there until she is drenched in sweat and falls asleep in her mother’s bed.
Crowds begin to gather on the village field for a ceremony. From the way they stand and sit, it’s clearly a ceremony for men—and there are two parties involved: Mgbafo and her brothers in one group, and Mgbafo’s husband and two relatives in the other. An iron gong sounds and drum and flute music begins. The voices of the egwugwu, or ritual dancers, are guttural and awesome: the spirits of the ancestors are emerging from the ground and into the egwugwu house, a sacred place where no woman has ever set foot. Nine egwugwu appear as masked spirits, representing the nine villages in the clan, and dance wildly. Okonkwo is probably the second dancer. Once the spirits have greeted the heads of the quarreling parties, a hearing begins. Mgbafo’s husband apparently beat her without mercy and even when she was pregnant, so her family has removed her from her husband’s house. Because she’s gone, the husband, Uzowulu, now wants her bride-price back. The egwugwu’s decision is that if Uzowulu brings wine to his in-laws’ house as a peace offering, Mgbafo and her children should return to him and he should behave more moderately.
The night is very dark and all four huts in Okonkwo’s compound have an oil lamp burning. Okonkwo is taking his snuff, and all the mothers are telling folk tales to their children. Ekwefi tells one about a tortoise who wished to join the feast of the birds in the sky, and tricks them into letting him eat all their food. Ezinma begins to tell another story, but is interrupted by the sound of Chielo, priestess of the Oracle, crying aloud in the night and demanding to talk to Ezinma. She tells Ekwefi to stay behind, and carries Ezinma on her back to the god’s cave. Ekwefi follows secretly anyway, running behind Chielo. She stays back, but the priestess senses she is being followed by an unknown being and curses her. Chielo takes Ezinma to the common of the farthest village, then turns around and heads for the caves. It is a very long journey. When the priestess enters the god’s cave, Ekwefi remains outside but vows to go in and die with Ezinma if her daughter cries out. Near dawn, a man approaches Ekwefi from behind, with a machete. She shrieks, but it is just Okonkwo, and they wait outside the cave together. Ekwefi remembers the day she ran away from her first husband to him, when she just stopped by the hut and he brought her inside to make love. He was as spare of words then as he is now.
The next morning in the village is festive because Okonkwo’s friend, Obierika, is celebrating his daughter’s uri—the day when her suitor brings palm wine for a wide and extensive group of kinsmen in celebration of the betrothal. Okonkwo’s other two wives are astir for the festival, but Ekwefi is tired. She had waited with Okonkwo until the priestess crawled out of the hole with Ezinma on her back, walked back to the village, laid Ezinma on Ekwefi’s bed, and then went away without saying a word to anyone. Okonkwo’ other wives promise to tell Obierika’s wife that Ekwefi will be late, as she wants to feed Ezinma. Okonkwo also feels tired—he visited the Oracle’s cave four times that night before he found Ekwefi there, and had become gravely worried.
Obierika’s compound is very busy because his wife is cooking for the whole village. Everyone chips in to help make the meal. Obierika has gone all the way to the famous market in Umuike to get an enormous goat to offer live to his in-laws, and tells tales about the marketplace. A cow gets loose in someone’s field and the women rush off to catch it before it does damage, then return to cooking.
The first two pots of palm-wine arrive in the early afternoon and are presented to the women to enjoy while they cook, and to the bride who is being coiffed. As it gets later, the male relatives arrive and sit down. Finally, the in-laws arrive bearing fifty pots of palm-wine, an honorable amount. The bride, her mother, and a few other women emerge to shake hands with the circle of men, then retire. Obierika breaks a kola nut and proposes the first toast. People eat and drink all evening, and at night the young men sing songs of praise about each of the older men, including Okonkwo. Then the women come out to dance, the bride has a solo dance, and the tired guests troop home.
The ekwe, or large drum, wakes everyone by booming out a message before dawn the next day. It is announcing the death of Ezeudu, the priest who had visited Okonkwo before Ikemefuna’s death. Ezeudu was a great man, so the whole clan comes to his funeral. There is wild, violent dancing and many appearances by ancestral spirits as they give him a warrior’s funeral. There is a lot of coming and going between the land of the egwugwu or spirits and the land of the living when an old man dies, and Ezeudu had been one of the oldest men in the clan. Since he had taken three titles in his life, an uncommonly high number, he was to be buried after dark with a glowing brand to light the ceremony. Before this, however, the dancing reaches a fever pitch and the men fire their guns in a final salute. From the center of the fury there is a cry of agony—the dead man’s sixteen year old son is lying in a pool of his own blood, killed by a piece of iron from Okonkwo’s gun.
Okonkwo must now flee the village, because it is a crime to kill a clansman. Because he did it inadvertently, it is a “female crime,” not a “male crime,” and he can return to the clan after seven years. That night, he puts his most valuable possessions into head loads, Obierika and other friends help him move his yams into Obierika’s barn, and then he and his family flee to Okonkwo’s motherland, a place called Mbanta.
At daybreak, a large crowd of men dressed for war storm Okonkwo’s compound and destroy it. They don’t hate Okonkwo, but they must carry out the justice of the earth goddess and cleanse the land which Okonkwo has polluted. After it is done, Obierika, who participated in the destruction, reflects on why a man should suffer so much for an inadvertent act. He resigns himself to the fact that if they didn’t carry out the goddess’ justice she would loose her wrath on the entire clan.
Okonkwo is well-received by his kinsmen in Mbanta, and in particular by Uchendu, his mother’s younger brother and the current eldest surviving member of the family. Uchendu remembers Okonkwo as a small boy, bringing his mother’s body to Uchendu to be buried with her people many years ago. Now Uchendu sees him bringing his three wives and family, and guesses what has happened, but lets Okonkwo wait until the next day to tell the story. Okonkwo is given ground for a new compound and some land to farm. He installs his personal god’s shrine, borrows seed-yams from Uchendu’s five sons, and once the first rain comes he begins to plant anew. He works hard, but his heart is not really in it because it had been his ambition to become one of the lords of the clan, and that does not seem possible now.
Uchendu sees Okonkwo’s depression and decides to speak to him after the final confession ceremony for his youngest son’s new marriage has been performed. All of Uchendu’s daughters and nieces have showed up for the ceremony, and sit in a circle with the bride at the center. They make the bride swear she is a virgin, and Amikwu, the youngest son, takes her to his hut and makes her his wife.
The following day, Uchendu calls the entire family, including Okonkwo, and publicly explains to Okonkwo the meaning of the common name Nneka, or “Mother is supreme.” He tells Okonkwo that every child’s most intimate tie is to the mother, which is why women are brought back to their own kinsmen to be buried. He says this means that it is a sin to be sorrowful about living in one’s motherland. He tells Okonkwo not to despair, because it is his duty to comfort and support his family, and also because everyone present has a deep sorrow—suffering is the common lot of human beings, and not unique to him.
Obierika visits Okonkwo in the second year of his exile, bringing two bags full of cowries. Okonkwo takes him to greet Uchendu, and they talk over a kola nut. Obierika tells them that a neighboring clan, Abame, has been wiped out. A white man visited them on an iron horse, and since their Oracle said he would break their clan and bring destruction, and would be the first of a swarm of white men, the Abame people decided to kill the white man. For a while nothing happened, and they left the iron horse tied to their sacred silk-cotton tree. Then three white men, led by a band of ordinary men, came and saw the iron horse. They came back on market day, surrounded the crowded marketplace, and shot everyone who was there. The three men feel afraid; they have heard stories of white men who had powerful guns and strong drinks and shipped slaves across the sea, but thought that the stories weren’t true. Uchendu says, “There is no story that is not true. The world has no end, and what is good among one people is an abomination with others. We have albinos among us. Do you not think that they came to our clan by mistake, that they have strayed from their way to a land where everybody is like them?”
Obierika shares a meal with the family. Obierika explains that the cowries are the money from Okonkwo’s yams, and that he will continue to give out the seed-yams to young men and reap profits for Okonkwo, but he wanted to bring this to Okonkwo first just in case something happens to him. For example, he jokes, just in case green men come to the clan and shoot everyone. Okonkwo thanks him deeply.
Obierika pays his next visit to Okonkwo two years later. White missionaries have already arrived in Umuofia and have begun converting the efulefu, or worthless and weak men in the tribe. Obierika tells Okonkwo that his son Nwoye has been seen among the missionaries. Okonkwo doesn’t want to tell the story, so Nwoye’s mother does.
A white man showed up in Mbanta with six foreign Africans, including one Ibo man that they can understand even though his dialect is quite different from theirs. He proclaims that they worship false gods of wood and stone and must convert to the true God in order to reach heaven when they die. Then the Christians begin to sing a hymn, which enthralls the villagers much more than the speech they had heard. Okonkwo throws the evangelists into confusion by asking them whether this God had a wife, since he had a son. Meanwhile, Nwoye’s callow mind is struck by the hymn’s image of brothers who sit in darkness and fear. He thinks of Ikemefuna and of abandoned twins crying in the forest, and has sympathy for the new religion.
The white man asks to talk to the king of the village. They explain that there is no king, and bring him before the council of elders and men with high title. The missionaries ask for a plot of land to build their church. The elders decide to offer them a portion of land in the Evil Forest where they bury people who died of foul diseases such as leprosy and smallpox. To everyone’s amazement, the missionaries thank them, build their house, and do not immediately die from a confrontation with the evil spirits who inhabit the Forest. The missionaries win their first three converts soon after.
Nwoye is immediately attracted to the new faith, but at first stays away and tries to hide his interest from his father. The white man heads back to his headquarters in Umuofia, and leaves his interpreter, a Mr. Kiaga, in charge of the congregation at Mbanta. Mr. Kiaga holds services and singing every Sunday. The villagers get excited because they believe the gods sometimes bide their time, but never allow anyone to defy them for longer than seven market weeks, and this divine deadline is coming up soon. However, the date passes uneventfully, and Mr. Kiaga wins new converts, including his first woman, Nneka, who had borne four sets of twins only to see them all immediately thrown into the bush, and who was now far gone in a new pregnancy.
Okonkwo’s cousin Amikwu spots Nwoye among the Christians and tells Okonkwo. Okonkwo falls into a fury and beats Nwoye, who does not flinch, but leaves the compound and never returns. Nwoye asks Mr. Kiaga to send him to the white missionary’s school in Umuofia. Okonkwo is very upset at losing his son, and even wonders if Nwoye is really his, because he seems such a weakling. He shudders at the idea of his sons and grandchildren deserting to the white man’s religion, and no-one honoring him or his forefathers when their spirits crowd round the ancestral shrine after death. Okonkwo’s nickname is “Roaring Flame,” and he finally accepts Nwoye’s defection by understanding that living fire, like himself, begets cold, impotent ash.
The clan is not overly worried by the new religion because its adherents are all efulefu, or worthless men. When the missionaries dare to venture into the village and claim in loud voices that the gods are dead and that they plan to burn their shrines, the clan seizes these men and beats the offenders until they stream with blood.
The villagers hear rumors that the missionaries have imported a government as well as a religion, but this seems like a fairy-tale which people ignore. Besides, the little church in Mbanta has internal troubles over the question of admitting outcasts, or osu, who decide to join when they hear twins and other such abominations have been admitted. An osu is a person dedicated to god, a thing set apart, who can never marry the free-born and who must live in a special area of the village, wearing the long matted dirty hair that is the mark of his forbidden caste. Some converts revert when the outcasts join, but the rest are convinced by Mr. Kiaga’s firmness in accepting the outcasts. He also makes the outcasts shave their hair, even though they are afraid that such an action will cause them to die. Nearly all the other outcasts join once they see that the first two have been accepted.
One outcast brings the church into serious conflict with the clan when he apparently kills, on purpose, a royal python—the most revered animal in the region, believed to be an emanation of the god of water, and normally allowed to go wherever it chose, even into people’s beds. After much discussion about the best course, the clan decides to ostracize the Christians. They prevent them from drawing water at the stream or going to market. However, when the man responsible for killing the python, Okoli, drops dead the previous night the clan decides the gods can still fight their own battles and see no more reason to molest the Christians.
Okonkwo is finally able to return to Umuofia. He has prospered in his motherland, but knows he would have done even better in his bold and warlike fatherland. He asks Obierika to build two huts for him, and waits for the dry season when his seven years will be officially up. He then has his wives prepare a great feast to thank his mother’s kinsmen for their help, and slaughters three goats. Uchendu breaks the kola nut and makes the first toast to the power of having kinsmen. It is so huge a feast that many kinsmen whistle in surprise. The people celebrate their community, and the power of family, particularly since it is under threat by the new religion. They say to Okonkwo, “Thank you for calling us together.”
Okonkwo knows things will be different when he returns—he will have lost his place among the nine masked spirits who administered justice in the clan, the chance to take the highest titles in the clan, and the chance to lead his people against the new religion. But he plans to return with a flourish, to regain the seven wasted years: he will build a much more magnificent compound, build huts for two new wives, take the ozo title for his sons, and still buy the highest title in the land for himself. When the tragedy of his first son occurred, he sent for his five other sons and warned them in the strongest terms not to follow Nwoye’s example. Now he also asks his daughters, including Ezinma, who has become astonishingly beautiful and bold and attuned to her father, not to marry until they return to Umuofia. He hopes his future sons-in-law will be men of authority in Umuofia.
When he returns, Okonkwo finds that a few worthy men have joined the Chrstians and also that the white men have brought their own form of government to the village. They judge cases and have court messengers who bring people for trial, and force prisoners to perform degrading manual labor until released. Okonkwo doesn’t understand why his people don’t fight back. Obierika explains that it is too late, because their own people have already joined the ranks of the strangers, and there are too many of them. The white men have cleverly divided them by first sending their religion into the territory, and only afterwards their government.
Many men and women regard the white men’s religion as lunatic, but disagree with Okonkwo’s total opposition because they enjoy the wealth brought to them by the trading store established by the head missionary. This man, Mr. Brown, is respected by the clan because he restrains the excesses of his new converts and avoids confrontation with the traditional sector if the village. In fact, one of the great men in a neighboring village sends his son to learn what Mr. Brown has to teach, without being converted, and even gives Mr. Brown a carved elephant tusk, sign of dignity and rank. This man, Akunna, has sophisticated philosophical arguments with Mr. Brown, which convince Brown not to launch a frontal attack on the local religion. Instead, Brown begs people to learn to read and write by explaining that the future leaders of the land will need these skills. After a few months in his school, students become court clerks or messengers, and more people are convinced to come. Education and religion are taught hand-in-hand. Mr. Brown’s health begins to break down from so much work.
Okonkwo is disappointed in the lack of notice he stirs. His daughters do arouse a great deal of interest, but it’s the wrong year for initiating sons into the ozo title, and the village has changed so much that it no longer really recognizes a warrior-type like Okonkwo. He mourns for the clan, which he sees as growing soft and breaking up.
Mr. Brown’s successor is the Reverend James Smith, who openly condemns the sort of accommodation and compromise that Brown practiced. Smith sees things as “black and white. And black was evil.” He preaches of the world as a battlefield, and is distressed that Brown emphasized numbers over absolutely correct understanding of church doctrine. Smith eggs on the over-zealous converts, including one Enoch, the son of the snake-priest, and a man believed to have earned his father’s curse by killing and eating the sacred python.
Enoch is small man with excessive energy that frequently erupts into quarrels. One day the ewugwu are abroad to celebrate the earth goddess on a Sunday, and the Christian women therefore cannot get home, because women aren’t allowed to see the ceremony. Their men beg the ewugwu to retire for a short bit to let the women pass. The spirits agree, but Enoch taunts them by saying they would never dare touch a Christian. An ewugwu promptly hits him with a cane. Then Enoch does the most terrible thing possible to enrage the clan—he unmasks the ewugwu or masked spirit of the ancestor, killing the ancestral spirit. The other ewugwu surround their desecrated companion and lead him away. That night the Mother of Spirits walks the length and breadth of the clan, weeping, for her murdered son. It sounds as though the soul of the tribe is weeping for a great evil—its coming death.
The next day all the masked ewugwu of all the neighboring villages assemble in Umuofia’s marketplace. They destroy Enoch’s compound and head for the church. Smith hides Enoch in the parsonage, destroying Enoch’s hopes of a holy war. Smith walks out to meet the approaching spirits, even though he is terrified for the first time. The spirits rush through the church gate and the oldest of them addresses Smith, calming the others. He tells Smith to go home, that they will not harm him for the sake of the memory of Mr. Brown, but that they must destroy the church to appease their anger. Smith tells them to go away, and he will deal with the problem according to his customs. But the leader, Ajofia, laughs bitterly and replies that he does not understand Smith’s customs, just as Smith does not understand his, and therefore that is not possible and the church must be destroyed. It is reduced to ashes, but the people are spared, and for a time the spirit of the clan is pacified.
Okonkwo has a feeling akin to happiness for the first time in many years. The village has acted like warriors. When the District Commissioner returns, however, village leaders are summoned to talk to him. They bring machetes but not guns, as that would be unseemly, and the Commissioner calls in interpreters to help them explain the situation. Ogbuefi Ekwueme begins to tell the story, but before he can armed guards rush through the door instead of interpreters, and the men are handcuffed and ill-treated at the hands of the court messengers. The chiefs are told they will be released if they pay two hundred bags of cowries, and when the court messengers spread the word to the people they announce that the fine is two hundred and fifty bags, so that they can keep the extra fifty. Rumors exaggerate the problem, claiming that the leaders will be hanged in Umuru if the fine is not paid.
Okonkwo and his fellow prisoners are set free when the fine is paid. The Commissioner speaks to them about things like peace and the queen and good government when they are released. But a new town meeting is called the next morning. The released men wear fearsome looks, and their backs are scarred by the warders’ whips. Okonkwo decides that night that if the village goes to war, all will be well, but if they don’t he will go out alone to avenge himself. Okonkwo decides that one man, Egonwanne, is a coward whose words turn fire to ash and destroy the bold resolve of the village. He looks out for him in the marketplace when everyone assembles.
The orators address the crowd. The say it is time to fight, even if it means shedding the blood of clansmen, a taboo which held them back before. Five court messengers show up during the speech and order the meeting dispersed. Okonkwo kills the first messenger, and the others escape. He knows the village won’t fight because the other court messengers got away.
When the Commissioner arrives at Okonkwo’s compound with a band of armed men, there is a small group of men sitting in there already who say to them, “Perhaps you can help us.” The Commissioner doesn’t understand and is irritated until he goes back to the garden, where he sees Okonkwo’s body dangling from a tree. The clansmen won’t take it down or touch it because a suicide is considered evil. Obierika cries out angrily against the Commissioner after explaining that Okonkwo won’t get a decent burial by his family, but chokes off before a court messenger can unnecessarily shout “Shut up!” at him. Then the narrative switches over totally to the Commissioner’s point of view. This Commissioner is briefly interested, but quickly turns and walks away. He thinks to himself that this is an interesting story that he could include in the book he is writing. A chapter might be too much space, but there is enough material for a paragraph. One has to be firm in cutting out details. He has already chosen the title: The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger.