One of Chinua Achebe’s goals in Things Fall Apart is to portray Ibo culture
vividly and honestly. Unlike European perspectives of the Africans – such as Conrad’s
Heart of Darkness – Achebe’s representation explains intricate customs, rituals, and laws
and develops individual characters. Things Fall Apart shows Ibo society to be fully
functioning and full of life. However, Achebe maintains his objectivity and avoids
giving the Ibo any undue sympathy, painting some of their customs – such as the
mandatory abandonment of infant twins – in a questionable light. While it is easy for us
– especially in this age of political correctness and multiculturalism – to place upon the
white man all the blame for the downfall of the Ibo, Achebe does not make the situation
so simple. In fact, it is the acquiescence of his comrades, not the intrusion of the
Europeans, which eventually causes Okonkwo to take his own life. Thus, it is difficult to
place the Ibo and the white men into traditional categories of good and evil, for each
exhibits positive and negative qualities. Although the Ibo certainly possessed a lively,
stable society before the Europeans arrived, their internal struggles contributed to their
Throughout the novel, Achebe offers detailed illustrations of the richness of Ibo
culture. Many episodes do not directly advance the plot, but rather serve to provide
examples of this culture. One of the most significant signs of the development of Ibo
culture is its system of laws and justice. A whole chapter describes the proceedings as
egwugwu (important clansmen who dress as village ancestors) determine the verdict in a
wife-beating case (87). The villagers are not stupid enough to believe that the costumed
men are actually the village ancestors, yet: “Okonkwo’s wives, and perhaps other women
as well, might have noticed that the second egwugwu had the springy walk of Okonkwo.
And they might have noticed that Okonkwo was not among the titled men and elders who
sat behind the row of egwugwu. But if they thought these things they kept them within
themselves” (90). The villagers remain silent out of respect for the ancestors represented
by the egwugwu and out of reverence for the ritual.
In addition to laws, Okonkwo’s world is also shaped by a social hierarchy, which
sheds light on the values of his people. Achebe notes, “Age was respected among his
people, but achievement was revered” (8). And it is through the strength of his own
achievements that Okonkwo gains his prominent social position. Originally gaining fame
through his wrestling prowess, he proceeds to distinguish himself in a war, become a
successful farmer, and gain some of the overt signs of social position: wives and titles.
Okonkwo’s history shows that the Ibo value strength, bravery and success.
Other Ibo traditions described in the novel include the Week of Peace, in which
no work is done (31), and the New York festival,...