Things Fall Apart Literary Analysis Essay
Table of Contents
Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart” is a rich novel set in the pre-colonial period among the Igbo people of Southern Nigeria. The author packs the novel with exciting themes, the central ones being masculinity and patriarchy. Achebe uses different literary devices to drive these themes home to his audience’s mind. Among the many literary devices, Achebe heavily applies direct characterization, symbolism, metaphors, and similes to communicate complex ideas in his central themes. Achebe heavily invests in characterization to demonstrate his central theme of masculinity, with the protagonist, Okonkwo, perfectly embodying the theme. Characterization, symbolism, metaphors, and similes fulfill the thematic purposes effectively in Achebe’s piece.
Themes of Masculinity and Patriarchy
Achebe’s piece has numerous themes, with masculinity and patriarchy being central. The piece speaks specifically of the theme of aggressive masculinity, which shapes the identity and life path of the characters (DeRousse, 2019). While the novel’s cultural setting highly regards aggressive masculinity, the novel uses the character Okonkwo to show the birth and growth of his aggressive masculinity and its eventual destruction on him, his relationships, and his community. The novel ultimately teaches how destructive and toxic masculinity is, as its three-part structure navigates the audience through Okonkwo’s life as an aggressive masculine man. Close to masculinity lies the theme of patriarchy, which gives the masculinity theme a budding ground. The Igbo people in the novel have a patriarchal society that belittles women and womanhood. This theme makes it easy for Okonkwo to embody the masculinity theme, making the novel quite crafty. Noteworthy, the piece has other themes, but these two take the central stage of the novel.
Achebe uses direct characterization, made possible by the third-person omniscient historical narrative style. The audience gets to directly know the characters through the narration of their values, ideologies, and traits (Reams, 2015). The narrator’s depiction of the Igbo people’s perception of women as weak brings out the theme of patriarchy. For instance, during a wrestling match, the narrator says how women watched while standing at the back while men sat on stools in the front (Chinua, 2021). Also, Okonkwo’s demand for his wife to do as she is told shows the patriarchal society the characters live in. The theme of masculinity has Okonkwo as its epitomizing embodiment. The narrator shows his belief in gender roles, hate for unsuccessful and weak men, insults to women, and love of violence. For instance, Okonkwo is embarrassed by his father’s lazy and weak identity, an experience that drives him to seek a masculine identity of toughness, commanding fear, and being successful (Chinua, 2021). His various occasions of beating his wives and children, hence commanding fear from them, strengthens his perception of a man. Okonkwo’s hiding of affectionate feelings towards his daughter and Ikemefuna supports his perception of affection as womanly, hence weak.
Also, Achebe shows how his aggressive masculine identity destroys Okonkwo when he loses his son to Christianity since he cannot reason with him. Okonkwo’s masculinity also literary destroys him when he commits suicide to avoid punishment after his masculine hot-tempered action of killing a messenger. Nwoye, Okonkwo’s son, shows traits of non-aggressive masculinity, which is an opposing trait to Okonkwo’s. Nwoye loves his mother’s moral-filled stories more than his father, showing an opposing trait to his father, who loves aggressive, bloody, and war-like stories. Nwoye contrasts his father’s features, making the theme of masculinity more visible (DeRousse, 2019). In short, the author’s direct characterization through the clear narration of Okonkwo’s values, beliefs, and perception of manliness perfectly fulfills the theme of aggressive masculinity.
Besides direct characterization, Achebe symbols like the yam, gun, and stories. The arduous and strong feature of growing yam and the importance the crop holds among the Igbo of Umuofia symbolizes the masculinity and importance Okonkwo seeks from his people (Obidiegwu & Akpabio, 2017). Yam is said to be the king of crops, and its work intensity makes it an attractive farming crop for men (Chinua, 2021). The labor-intensive nature of growing yam makes it a platform for Okonkwo to demonstrate his manliness. Okonkwo’s mishandling of the gun twice in the novel precedes emasculation, which symbolizes the destructive nature of his toxic masculinity perception (Cherrat, 2012). For instance, he is told to apologize, an emasculation act, for shooting at his wife during the week of peace. He is banished after accidentally killing Uchendu’s son using a gun (Chinua, 2021). These two instances symbolize the destructive nature of his masculinity, which later befell him at the novel’s ending. Finally, women’s stories are perceived as silly and womanly, symbolizing the patriarchal nature of the people of Umuofia. The symbolism in the above three ways communicates the central themes more clearly.
Metaphors and Similes
Achebe also uses metaphors and similes to drive his literal theses home. For example, the quote, “Living fire begets cold, impotent ash,” is a metaphor showing the contrast between Okonkwo and his son Nwoye (Msuya, 2016). While the narrator refers to Okonkwo as “roaring fire,” showing his aggressive and ferocious masculine identity, his son, Nwoye, is a calm and placid person, which to Okonkwo, is impotence. This metaphor shows Okonkwo’s masculinity as burning, which leaves behind ashes that are often calm and cold. Further, Achebe likens Okonkwo’s rumbling to the rainy thunder, which shows his fierce threatening demeanor, a characteristic of aggressive masculinity.
As shown above, the authoritative themes in the novel are masculinity and patriarchy, as made effective through Achebe’s use of symbolism, characterization, metaphor, and similes. The direct characterization of the characters makes the characters’ traits, values, and beliefs evident. The clarity of the characters’ traits allows the author to embody the themes in the characters. The symbolism, metaphors, and similes help Achebe communicate his central themes’ complex ideas, making Achebe’s thematic purposes effectively fulfilled.
- Cherrat, N. (2012). The Function of Symbolism in Chinua Achebe’s Novel Things Fall Apart [Unpublished master’s thesis]. University of Mohamed Khider-Biskra.
- Chinua, A. (2021). Things Fall Apart 1st ed. Anchor Books.
- DeRousse, N. (2019). Masculinity in relation to” Things Fall Apart.” Scholars Week: Literature Research Presentations. https://digitalcommons.murraystate.edu/scholarsweek/Fall2019/LitResearch/1/
- Msuya, E. A. (2016). Use of Metaphors In Fictional Narrative: A Genrewise Comparison Of Selected Works By African Writers. International Journal of Linguistics and Literature, 5(4), 1-22.
- Obidiegwu, J. E., & Akpabio, E. M. (2017). The geography of yam cultivation in southern Nigeria: Exploring its social meanings and cultural functions. Journal of Ethnic Foods, 4(1), 28-35.
- Reams, J. (2015). Characterization in fiction [Unpublished master’s thesis]. Texas State University, San Marcos, Texas. https://digital.library.txstate.edu/handle/10877/5627