Tradition vs. Change in Chinua Achebe's "Things Fall Apart"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2002

10 Pages, Grade: A (USA = 1)




0. Introduction

1. The Traditional Igbo Culture

2. Christianity and The Colonizers

3. The effects of the colonizers’ arrival on Igbo culture – Okonkwo’s downfall

4. Conclusion – The struggle between change and tradition

5. Bibliography

0. Introduction

"Does the white man understand our custom about land?"

"How can he when he 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 can no longer act like one. He has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart." (Achebe, p.176 )

Things Fall Apart is a story about personal beliefs and customs and also a story about conflict. There is struggle between family, culture, and religion of the Igbo people which is all brought on by a difference in personal beliefs and customs. Finally, we see how things fall apart when these beliefs and customs are confronted by those of the white missionaries.

According to Ernest N. Emenyonu, Things Fall Apart is a classic study of cross-cultural misunderstanding and the consequences to the rest of humanity, when a belligerent culture or civilization, out of sheer arrogance and ethnocentrism, takes it upon itself to invade another culture, another civilization (p.84).

Chinua Achebe is a product of both, native African and European culture. Achebe’s education in English and exposure to European customs have allowed him to capture at the same time the European and the African perspectives on colonial expansion, religion, race, and culture. This has a great effect on the composition of the novel because he is able to tell the story with an understanding and personal experiences in both cultures. He does not portray the African culture and their beliefs as barbaric. He simply tells it as it is and how things happened. Chinua Achebe states that neither of the cultures were bad, but they simply had a difference in beliefs.

In the first section of this paper I would like to outline some important aspects of the traditional Igbo culture as presented in Things Fall Apart. Achebe argues that the white man has destroyed Igbo culture out of ignorance of the people’s way of life and the white man’s inability to speak the people’s language. The second section deals with Christianity and the colonizers. I will compare the Igbo systems to a certain extent to the new system the white man brought to Nigeria. Later on, I will examine the effects of the colonizers’ arrival and their religion on the indigenous culture, giving special attention to Okonkwo, the main character of the novel.

1. The Traditional Igbo Culture

Things Fall Apart is set in the 1890s and portrays the clash between Nigeria's white colonial government and the traditional culture of the indigenous Igbo people. Achebe's novel shatters the stereotypical European portraits of native Africans. In the first part of the novel, the author is careful to portray the complex, advanced social, political and religious institutions as well as artistic traditions of Igbo culture prior to its contact with Europeans. Achebe brings to life an African culture with religion, a government, a system of money, and an artistic tradition, as well as a judicial system. The reader is introduced to the traditional Igbo family structure (chapter 5), to a model Igbo engagement and wedding ceremony (chapters 8 and 12), to the Umuofia Supreme Court (chapter 10) and to a number of ritual manifestations and festivals. While technologically unsophisticated, the Igbo culture is revealed to the reader as remarkably complex.

Igbo religion exerts a great deal of influence on the moral and political lives and activities of its practitioners. According to David Carroll, the Igbo religion consists of three major categories of belief: the worship of the great public deities, the cult of personal gods, and the worship of the ancestors (p.29). Igbo cosmology and traditional religion informs and shapes the world-view, moral code and ethics of the characters in Things Fall Apart. It defines the relation of men to other creatures or forces in the universe, to his fellow men, and to the supernatural force behind all creations, God, or Chukwu or Chineke in case of the Igbo people (Ogbaa, Gods, p.9). At various points throughout the novel, the concepts of the Supreme God – C hukwu and the Personal God – Chi are discussed. There is an established order in social relationships. Devotion to gods and ancestors is taken for granted and compliance is expected of every adult member of the society. The wishes of the gods are made known to the public by special agencies known as Oracles and Diviners. Worshipers approach Chukwu through such divinities as gods, goddesses, and oracles. So absolute was the believe in the inscrutability of the gods that no one dared question the decree of the gods as pronounced by the high priests, even if this meant an order to throw away one’s twin babies or to “sacrifice” one’s own son (chapter 7).

The Igbo culture is also given expression in their folktales, proverbs, and proper names. By peppering the novel with Igbo words, Achebe shows that the Igbo language is too complex for direct translation into English. C. L. Innes states that the author’s use of Igbo words is a means of insisting on the otherness of Igbo culture and language, to make the reader aware of non-English sounds and concepts in order to remind him that the Igbo have a language of their own through which they express their culture (p.34). Through his inclusion of proverbs, folktales, and songs translated from the Igbo language, Achebe managed to capture and convey the rhythms, structures, cadences, and beauty of the Igbo language. Proverbs and folktales are used to comment on the behavior and activities of the principal characters and to reveal Igbo moral and ethical codes (Ogbaa, Gods, pp. 111 and 144).

As Kalu Ogbaa has put it in his book Understanding Things Fall Apart “, Achebe uses Things Fall Apart as a window through which to reveal both the serious and the lighter aspects of Igbo men, whether engaged in individual activities at home or during folk festivals” (p. 166f). In this novel, Achebe gives the reader an overview of traditional Igbo life and folkways by describing the public, private, and personal lives of the characters. He portrays a civil, ordered society based upon a hierarchy of gods, ancestors, elders and families. It is an agricultural community, subject to the order and the vagaries of the seasons and weather. It has times of hard work, times of civil crises, occasions of crime and discord. It has complex but effective means of dealing with the problems both of prosperity and adversity. It has, too, times of leisure, of courtesy, of ceremony, of fantasy, folk tale and song, dance and music.


Excerpt out of 10 pages


Tradition vs. Change in Chinua Achebe's "Things Fall Apart"
Southern Connecticut State University  (English Department)
The Contemporary African Novel
A (USA = 1)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
535 KB
This deals with a term paper i wrote in the USA for a M.A. Program. Good stuff...
Tradition, Change, Chinua, Achebe, Things, Fall, Apart, Contemporary, African, Novel
Quote paper
Anonymous, 2002, Tradition vs. Change in Chinua Achebe's "Things Fall Apart", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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