Foreshadowing in Things Fall Apart begins with the novel’s title, which indicates that the story to come does not end well. Achebe amplifies this sense of impending doom by prefacing Part One with an epigraph containing the quote from W. B. Yeats’s poem “The Second Coming” from which the novel gets its name. Yeats’s poem presents a deeply ominous vision of some mysterious future event, which its speaker envisions arising from the chaos and anarchy that characterizes the present moment. It is not at all clear, however, whether this future event bodes well or ill: “[W]hat rough beast,” the speaker asks, “Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”
Achebe’s use of Yeats is significant. Yeats wrote his poem at the start of the Irish War of Independence, when Ireland sought its freedom from British colonialism. While Yeats envisions an obscure future beyond the horror of colonialism, Achebe uses Yeats to signal not the end but the beginning of colonialism in Nigeria.
The Arrival of the British
In addition to the title and the epigraph from Yeats, Achebe uses other strategies to foreshadow the arrival of the British. Take, for instance, the coming of the locusts. The narrator explains how the first swarm of locusts that came was small: “They were the harbingers sent to survey the land” before the rest descended. The locusts prefigure the missionaries, who in turn prefigure the eventual coming of colonial governance. The narrator makes this connection explicit later in the novel, when Obierika informs Okonkwo of the oracle’s prophecy following the first appearance of a white man in the nine villages: “It said that other white men were on their way. They were locusts, it said, and that first man was their harbinger sent to explore the terrain.”
The narrator also uses proverbs to accomplish a similar effect. For instance, after the accident that results in Okonkwo’s exile, the narrator makes an ominous nod to proverbial wisdom: “As the elders said, if one finger brought oil it soiled the others.” This sentence appears at the very end of Part One and suggests the challenges that will arise throughout Parts Two and Three.
Although Nwoye’s conversion to Christianity comes as a surprise to Okonkwo, the narrator foreshadows this event by frequently underlining Nwoye’s frustration both with his father’s harsh expectations and with certain Igbo cultural practices he finds morally questionable. One clear instance of foreshadowing comes in Nwoye’s love for the tales his mother tells. Okonkwo dismisses these as “women’s” stories and forces Nwoye to listen to “masculine stories of violence and bloodshed” instead. When Nwoye later hears “the poetry of the new religion,” it captivates him like his mother’s stories and lays the groundwork for his conversion.
In addition to its poetry, the Christian tradition also illuminates aspects of Igbo culture that trouble Nwoye. For example, “The hymn about brothers who sat in darkness and in fear seemed to answer a vague and persistent question . . . of the twins crying in the bush and the question of Ikemefuna who was killed.” These questions first haunted Nwoye many years earlier, which was the first time “something [gave] away inside of him,” foreshadowing his eventual decision to abandon Igbo customs.
Just as clues predict Nwoye’s conversion, clues also predict Okonkwo’s suicide. The first clue comes early in the novel, when a farmer succumbs to despair following a particularly devastating yam harvest: “One man tied his cloth to a tree branch and hanged himself,” just like Okonkwo will do at the novel’s conclusion. A second clue comes much later, when Okonkwo is exiled in Mbanta and Obierika comes to deliver the profits from his friend’s yam harvest. In a morbid, joking exchange, Okonkwo expresses that he does not know how to thank Obierika. When Okonkwo indicates that it would not even be enough to kill one of his sons in gratitude, Obierika suggests an alternative: “Then kill yourself.”
Although meant as a joke, the reader recalls this grim suggestion ten pages later when Obierika returns to Mbanta to inform Okonkwo of Nwoye’s conversion to Christianity. Okonkwo has a premonition of doom: “[He] felt a cold shudder run through him at the terrible prospect, like the prospect of annihilation.” The sense of doom Okonkwo feels here speaks at once to the annihilation of the Igbo world and to his own future suicide.