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Very slowly paced, challenging despite its plain surface

  • Dec 24, 2004
This novel has been assigned for the intro to literature course I teach to technical college students, most of whom are immigrants or their children, most from Asia or Latin America. I've wondered about the relevance, therefore, of a Nigerian story set a century ago, written in a rather formal, faintly Britishised English prose, which for most of the story takes a leisurely, rather episodic pace until sudden eruptions of energy--as in the night pursuing the priestess, or the fate of the foster son of the protagonist (no plot spoilers here).

The final third of the narrative, with the arrival of the missionaries--white and black, it is to be noted--starts to compress the action into a quicker, more Westernised pace, whereas the previous native sections were told in the mode of storytelling reflecting not only the author's exposure to and transformation of the English he learned at 8 and studied at university in the 1950s, to play off against the clash with the newer rush of culture and ideas and force brought by Europeanisation.

Fair play to Achebe for a balanced look at the pros and cons and the inevitability of imperialism as it sought out and conquered the traditional holdouts and wiped out or at least gravely injured ancient beliefs and practices. This novel, I believe, works more as a case study from the p-o-v of those forced to submit to the foreign ruler, but Achebe does show that Christianity offers the lowest castes a chance at redemption in this life that they could not have found within the prejudices of the native ideology. This fair-mindedness does much to create a provocative, more nuanced perspective, even as from the indirect consciousness of the protagonist, the new arrivals represent accurately the doom of the power and the order once sustained for so long, isolated from the invader's machinations.

As a novel, and not a source of understanding this conflict, I think that Achebe gives a literary work less symbolic and multi-layered than, say, Conrad's Heart of Darkness--which I've taught to students who found it nearly beyond their grasp. That Achebe's book is taught to younger readers surprises me (my copy was in the young adult section of the library), since--like Hemingway--a rather transparent prose style may cover lots of complexity between the lines. However, Achebe's style is plainer, and often in the early stages of the work, there is not the depth below what for non-Nigerian readers holds lots to grasp in terms of a different vocabulary, mentality, and folklore. This is not an easy read, but this is due more to our unfamiliarity with the context than the story itself. The clash of mentalities will be able to be understood by my students, but the intricacies of Achebe's native culture will still be beyond our knowledge from what the glossary provides. Sure, any such tale needs to be rooted in a specific time and place to keep its forcefulness, but for readers who must read this novel for a course rather than by choice, there's much here to elude easy answers. So, be forewarned if you are to teach or be told to read this novel, for it's a bigger task than many I bet realize.

It took me a while to read this, and the opening half moved often at an extremely languid speed, with little to engage me. The second half, as I stated, picks up, but whether this novel keeps the attention and fully engages students who have been assigned the work--who seem to make up much of its audience judging from the supplementary "guides" linked to this novel on amazon.com and the comments of many reviewers here--makes me a bit uncertain as to whether the praise for this novel comes more from academia than grassroots enthusiasm. I'll have to find out!

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More Things Fall Apart: A Novel reviews
review by . January 20, 2013
I am truly disappointed that I wasn't assigned this in High School. I just finished reading this and...God, I loved it. It's a mini-epic, an exploration of the Nigerian culture before and after the coming of European colonialism, but centered around the tragedy of one man. Why is it so good? Well, let's consider the title first of all. "Things Fall Apart". Taken from Yeats' poem, "The Second Coming", the title is so simple and yet gets to the heart of the matter …
Quick Tip by . January 19, 2013
It's no secret why this novel is considered Chinua Achebe's masterpiece.  It is a wonderfully stark and balanced portrayal of Igbo tribal life as well as being an excellent tragedy in its own right.  Okonkwo is definitely one of the more unique antiheroes I've ever encountered in literature.  Some readers may find the plot kind of slow, episodic and aimless at the beginning, but this is intentional as it makes the ending of the story have that much more impact.  Highly …
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John L. Murphy ()
Ranked #51
Medievalist turned humanities professor; unrepentant but not unskeptical Fenian; overconfident accumulator of books & music; overcurious seeker of trivia, quadrivia, esoterica.      … more
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One of Chinua Achebe's many achievements in his acclaimed first novel,Things Fall Apart, is his relentlessly unsentimental rendering of Nigerian tribal life before and after the coming of colonialism. First published in 1958, just two years before Nigeria declared independence from Great Britain, the book eschews the obvious temptation of depicting pre-colonial life as a kind of Eden. Instead, Achebe sketches a world in which violence, war, and suffering exist, but are balanced by a strong sense of tradition, ritual, and social coherence. His Ibo protagonist, Okonkwo, is a self-made man. The son of a charming ne'er-do-well, he has worked all his life to overcome his father's weakness and has arrived, finally, at great prosperity and even greater reputation among his fellows in the village of Umuofia. Okonkwo is a champion wrestler, a prosperous farmer, husband to three wives and father to several children. He is also a man who exhibits flaws well-known in Greek tragedy:
Okonkwo ruled his household with a heavy hand. His wives, especially the youngest, lived in perpetual fear of his fiery temper, and so did his little children. Perhaps down in his heart Okonkwo was not a cruel man. But his whole life was dominated by fear, the fear of failure and of weakness. It was deeper and more intimate than the fear of evil and capricious gods and of magic, the fear of the forest, and of the forces of nature, malevolent, red in tooth and claw. Okonkwo's fear was greater than these. It was ...
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ISBN-10: 0385474547
ISBN-13: 978-0385474542
Author: Chinua Achebe
Genre: Literature & Fiction
Publisher: Anchor
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