The narrative structure of Things Fall Apart follows a cyclical pattern that chronicles Okonkwo’s youth in Umuofia, his seven-year exile in Mbanta, and his eventual return home. Each of the novel’s three parts covers one of these periods of Okonkwo’s life. The novel’s three parts also map onto a gendered narrative structure that follows Okonkwo from fatherland to motherland back to fatherland. This gendered narrative structure functions in counterpoint with Okonkwo’s ongoing obsession with his own masculinity. Despite every attempt to gain status and become an exemplar of traditional Igbo masculinity, Okonkwo suffers from a feeling of relentless emasculation. Okonkwo’s struggle to achieve recognition repeatedly draws him into conflict with his community, eventually leading both to his own downfall and to that of Umuofia and the nine villages.
Part One of Things Fall Apart emphasizes Okonkwo’s coming-of-age and his attempts to distance himself from the disreputable legacy of his father, Unoka. Okonkwo’s tireless efforts and singular drive, along with his local fame as a wrestling champion, go a long way in securing him a place among the titled men of Umuofia. Yet Okonkwo’s zeal frequently leads him astray, as when he executes Ikemefuna, the young boy who became his surrogate son after being surrendered to Umuofia by another village to settle a violent dispute. When the clan elders decide it is time for Ikemefuna’s execution, an elder named Ogbuefi Ezeudu warns Okonkwo that he should “not bear a hand in [Ikemefuna’s] death.” Despite this warning, a moment of panic ultimately drives Okonkwo to bring his machete down on his surrogate son: “He was afraid of being weak.” At other points in Part One, Okonkwo shows himself quick to anger with his wives and short in patience with his children. His obsession with upward mobility and traditional masculinity tends to alienate others, leaving him in a precarious social position.
In addition to narrating Okonkwo’s struggle to build a distinguished reputation, Part One also provides a broad view of the precolonial Igbo cultural world. Achebe showcases numerous Igbo cultural values, religious beliefs, and ritual practices to provide the reader with a sense of the Igbo world. By the end of Part One, however, both Okonkwo’s life and the life of his community teeter on the brink of disaster. The first blow comes with the death of Ogbuefi Ezeudu, the oldest man in the village, and the same man who warned Okonkwo against killing Ikemefuna. The second blow comes when, during Ezeudu’s nighttime burial, Okonkwo’s gun misfires and kills Ezeudu’s sixteen-year-old son. The ominous manslaughter of Ezeudu’s son forces the remaining village elders to burn Okonkwo’s huts, kill his livestock, and send him and his family into exile for seven years.
Exiled for committing a “feminine” (i.e., accidental) crime, Okonkwo retreats from his fatherland to the land of his mother’s kin, a retreat that Okonkwo finds deeply emasculating. This personal sense of emasculation parallels larger cultural and historical changes, as white Christian missionaries begin to infiltrate the lower Niger region, including both Umuofia and Okonkwo’s site of exile, Mbanta. The personal and historical senses of emasculation come to a head when an old friend from Umuofia visits Okonkwo in Mbanta to inform him that his eldest son, Nwoye, has abandoned traditional Igbo beliefs and joined the Christian faith. Realizing that this event constitutes a major rupture in his patrilineal line, Okonkwo disowns Nwoye.
By the time Okonkwo and his family leave Mbanta, the growing presence of foreigners in Umuofia has already created deep internal divisions. In addition to the missionaries who arrived in his absence, government officials also begin to filter in, installing a foreign rule of law. The changes in Umuofia compromise Okonkwo’s homecoming, which he hoped would represent a new start. Finding himself once again in a passive, emasculated position, Okonkwo grows increasingly furious with his fellow Umuofians, who refuse to take violent action against the missionaries and force them out. Whereas others praise the British for providing increased access to resources along with medicine and education, Okonkwo sees the British as a cancer whose presence will eventually kill Umuofia and the nine villages.
Following another emasculating incident where colonial officers throw Okonkwo and others in jail and set a steep bail, Okonkwo takes an uncompromising position in favor of tradition. His final acts of violence—murder and suicide—cement the novel’s tragedy. This tragedy is, once again, deeply gendered. In the law of Umuofia, an intentional killing constitutes a “masculine” crime. Although Igbo tradition does not explicitly code suicide as a “feminine” crime, killing himself is an unspeakable act that strips Okonkwo of all honor. Thus, his suicide brings a final instance of emasculation, as he will be denied the honor of a proper burial.