Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.
Achebe uses this opening stanza of William Butler Yeats’s poem “The Second Coming,” from which the title of the novel is taken, as an epigraph to the novel. In invoking these lines, Achebe hints at the chaos that arises when a system collapses. That “the center cannot hold” is an ironic reference to both the imminent collapse of the African tribal system, threatened by the rise of imperialist bureaucracies, and the imminent disintegration of the British Empire. Achebe, writing in 1959, had the benefit of retrospection in depicting Nigerian society and British colonialism in the 1890s.
Yet Achebe’s allusion is not simply political, nor is it ironic on only one level. Yeats’s poem is about the Second Coming, a return and revelation of sorts. In Things Fall Apart, this revelation refers to the advent of the Christian missionaries (and the alleged revelation of their teachings), further satirizing their supposed benevolence in converting the Igbo. For an agricultural society accustomed to a series of cycles, including that of the locusts, the notion of return would be quite credible and familiar.
The hyperbolic and even contradictory nature of the passage’s language suggests the inability of humankind to thwart this collapse. “Mere anarchy” is an oxymoron in a sense, since the definition of anarchy implies an undeniably potent level of radicalism. The abstraction in the language makes the poem’s ideas universal: by referring to “[t]hings” falling apart as opposed to specifying what those collapsing or disintegrating things are, Yeats (and Achebe) leaves his words open to a greater range of interpretations. It is worth noting, in addition, that Achebe cuts away from the poem just as it picks up its momentum and begins to speak of “innocence drowned” and “blood-dimmed” tides. It is a measure of Achebe’s subtlety that he prefers a prologue that is understated and suggestive, rather than polemical, ranting, and violent.
And at last the locusts did descend. They settled on every tree and on every blade of grass; they settled on the roofs and covered the bare ground. Mighty tree branches broke away under them, and the whole country became the brown-earth color of the vast, hungry swarm.
This passage from Chapter 7 represents, in highly allegorical terms, the arrival of the colonizers. The locusts have been coming for years, but their symbolic significance in this passage lies in the inevitable arrival of the colonizers, which will alter the landscape and psychology of the Igbo people irreparably. The repetition of the phrase “They settled,” an example of the rhetorical device anaphora (in which a clause begins with the same word or words with which the previous clause begins), in addition to the repetition of the word “every,” reflects the suddenly ubiquitous presence of the locusts. The choice of the verb “settle,” of course, clearly refers to the colonizers. The branches that break under the weight of the locusts are symbols of the traditions and cultural roots of Igbo society, which can no longer survive under the onslaught of colonialism and white settlement. Ironically, the “vast, hungry swarm” is not white but rather brown like the earth; the emphasis, however, remains on the locusts’ consumptive nature and inescapable presence.
Among the Igbo the art of conversation is regarded very highly, and proverbs are the palm-oil with which words are eaten.
This quote, from the narrator’s recounting, in Chapter 1, of how Unoka calmly interacted with someone to whom he owed money, alludes to the highly sophisticated art of rhetoric practiced by the Igbo. This rhetorical formalness offers insight into the misunderstandings that occur between the Igbo and the Europeans. Whereas the latter value efficiency and directness in their dealings, the Igbo value an adherence to their cultural traditions, which include certain patterns of dialogue considered inefficient by Western standards. The metaphor of words as food is highly appropriate, given the almost exclusively agricultural nature of Igbo society. They award the same value that they place on food, the sustenance of life, to words, the sustenance of interaction and hence community.
He had already chosen the title of the book, after much thought: The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger.
This sentence, which concludes the novel, satirizes the entire tradition of western ethnography and imperialism itself as a cultural project, and it suggests that the ethnographer in question, the District Commissioner, knows very little about his subject and projects a great deal of his European colonialist values onto it. The language of the commissioner’s proposed title reveals how misguided he is: that he thinks of himself as someone who knows a great deal about pacifying the locals is highly ironic, since, in fact, he is a primary source of their distress, not their peace. Additionally, the notion of “[p]acification” is inherently offensive—a condescending conception of the natives as little more than helpless infants. Similarly, the label “[p]rimitive” comes across as a patronizing insult that reflects the commissioner’s ignorance about the Igbo and their complexly ritualized and highly formalized mode of life. The assertion that the commissioner has come up with a title “after much thought” accentuates the fact that the level of attention he has paid to his own thoughts and perceptions well exceeds that paid to the actual subject of the study.
“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.”
This exchange occurs at the end of Chapter 20 during the conversation between Obierika and Okonkwo. In the discussion, which centers on various events that have come to pass since the arrival of the colonialists, Obierika seems to voice Achebe’s own thoughts on colonialism. Upset by the fact that the white men have come and completely disregarded the Igbo sense of justice, Obierika points out the impossibility of the colonialists understanding anything about the Umuofians without speaking their language. He points out the ludicrousness of denigrating unfamiliar customs.
Yet, Obierika does not lay the blame wholly on the side of the white man. He feels also that the Umuofians who have converted to Christianity have consciously and wrongly turned their backs on their own “brothers.” This assessment complicates our understanding of the novel, as Achebe prevents us from seeing matters in clear-cut terms of good (black) versus bad (white). Indeed, Achebe elsewhere attempts to demonstrate the validity of some questions about Igbo culture and tradition. If religion and tradition are the threads that hold the clan together, and if that religion is flawed and that tradition vulnerable, it becomes hard to determine who is at fault for the resulting destruction. Certainly, Achebe does not blame the villagers. But, while this quotation displays his condemnation of the colonialists for their disrespect toward Igbo customs, it also shows his criticism of some clan members’ responses to the colonial presence.