When Chinua Achebe wrote Things Fall Apart in the late 1950s, he was responding to centuries of European writing that had portrayed Africa as a “dark continent,” plagued by savagery and superstition. Negative European representations of Africa functioned in multiple, contradictory ways. They situated “darkest Africa” in contrast to an Enlightened Europe, which affirmed both the spiritual and material superiority of European civilization. Negative representations of Africa also proved useful for European nations that were engaged in imperialism and the slave trade. These nations needed to justify their involvement in such despicable practices in order to preserve their moral superiority, a problem that could be solved by producing dehumanizing images of African peoples.
Centuries’ worth of negative images shaped not only how Europeans thought about Africans, but also how Africans thought about themselves. The “civilizing mission” of European imperialism involved widespread educational efforts, and in colonial schools Africans were taught European languages as well as European history and literature. African students absorbed all of Europe’s accumulated anti-African biases. Generations of Africans under colonial rule grew up with deeply problematic self-images.
Achebe, who grew up in British colonial Nigeria, said he wrote Things Fall Apart to counter the kinds of flawed representations he encountered during his education. When he was a student at the University College in Ibadan in the early 1950s, Achebe read Joyce Cary’s 1939 novel Mister Johnson, which was set in colonial Nigeria. While most of the literature curriculum at Ibadan emphasized Shakespeare, Milton, and the British Romantics, Cary’s modernist novel hit closer to home. But Mister Johnson also proved frustrating because of everything it got wrong.
Achebe and his peers at school challenged Cary’s simplistic portrayal of the Nigerian protagonist. In making this critique, Achebe also recognized the power of such problematic representations of Africans. As Achebe writes in the opening essay from the book Home and Exile, Cary’s novel “open[ed] my eyes to the fact that my home was under attack and that my home was not merely a house or a town but, more importantly, an awakening story.” Soon after this realization, Achebe completed his first-ever manuscript and sent it to England to be typewritten and, eventually, published.
Things Fall Apart emerged in opposition to a long history of European misrepresentations of Africa. The novel answered a need for African stories told from an African perspective. In response to Joyce Cary’s Mister Johnson and other landmark modernist novels of Africa such as Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Achebe depicted an African reality with compassion and complexity. Until the publication of Things Fall Apart in 1958, very few English-language texts written by Africans had been published. Achebe’s novel was a game changer.
Things Fall Apart has sold millions of copies and has long been a staple in world literature classes. Achebe’s first novel also made it possible for many other African writers to publish their work. In 1962, just two years after Nigeria received its independence, the British publisher Heinemann launched its landmark African Writers Series. Achebe served as the first series editor, and under his ten-year tenure he published some of the most important writers from throughout Africa, including Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o (Kenya), Wole Soyinka (Nigeria), and Ayi Kwei Armah (Ghana).