Within the complex oral culture of the Igbo, elaborate storytelling is a prized art form as well as a crucial social tool. Children learn their families’ history through their mothers’ fireside tales, and clan members absorb communal values through stories told over and over again at clan gatherings. Stories bind the Igbo people as a community, but in the hands of other, alien tellers, stories are the very things that destroy the clan and its beliefs.

Read more about the art of storytelling in Homer’s epic poem, The Odyssey.

For the Igbo, the storytellers that attract you and the stories that resonate for you indicate your values. Nwoye, for example, prefers to listen to his mother’s stories rather than his father’s, setting him apart from the other Igbo men. Later, Nwoye’s love of the Christians’ hymns and simple stories compel him to reject his own clan and convert, one of the first incidents of the clan’s disintegration. Nwoye is lured away from Igbo culture and toward Christianity by the affecting quality of the missionaries’ songs and tales, which speak to him more powerfully than the stories he grew up with. By choosing new stories to believe in, Nwoye in effect chooses a new society to belong to.

The falling apart of the Igbo community can be traced to the fact that the Igbo consider the white people to be mere “fairy-tales.” Rather than appreciating accounts of the Europeans’ approach as factual reports, the news of their own imminent colonization strikes the Igbo as an incredible story. As the clan elders of Mbanta confer, one claims that, though they heard “stories about white men who made the powerful guns and the strong drinks and took slaves away across the seas, no one thought the stories were true.” Uchendu, Okonkwo’s thoughtful uncle, responds, “There is no story that is not true.”

The Igbo tell stories to order their world and to ascribe meaning to certain events. But the story of the white people is not a story they have woven, whose meanings they can control. Most of the Igbo people cannot incorporate the fantastical tale of the Europeans into their worldview because it lies so far outside their frame of reference. But by failing to appreciate Uchendu’s philosophy that every story contains some truth, the Igbo fail to realize that their authority to write their own stories—in essence, to control their own destinies—has become threatened by the colonizers.

The final downfall of the Igbo people is heralded by another story—a story about them, but one that is narrated by an outsider. At the close of the novel, the Commissioner decides that he will record his own story of the Igbo. However, he declares that he must be “firm in leaving out superfluous details.” There is no room for artful, Igbo-like rhetoric in his tale of conquest. The narrative the Commissioner envisions is one that would make for “interesting reading,” that is, a written rather than oral story, which entertains rather than communicates values and customs. The Commissioner’s writing sounds the death knell for the Igbo culture, its rejection of the Igbo’s prized oral narration and elaborate rhetoric symbolizing the European conquering of Africa and subsequent uprooting of its traditions.

The Commissioner’s decision to become a writer reflects Achebe’s ambiguous relationship to the events and culture he describes in Things Fall Apart. With this novel, the Nigerian Achebe straddles the two opposing modes of storytelling he depicts within the plot, employing both the looping, repetitive style of the Igbo’s oral culture as well as the written English of the Europeans. Just as the Commissioner’s decision to write down the Igbo story signals the conclusion of that story, Achebe’s Westernized version of the Igbo history signifies the end of their traditional culture.