Things Fall Apart

by: Chinua Achebe

Point of View

Main ideas Point of View

Things Fall Apart takes a third-person omniscient perspective, which means that the narrator knows and communicates the thoughts and feelings of all the characters. The narrator refuses to judge characters or their actions. For instance, despite Okonkwo’s resolute rejection of his father, the narrator presents Unoka’s story neutrally: “Unoka was never happy when it came to wars. . . . And so he changed the subject and talked about music, and his face beamed.” Although Unoka deviates from cultural norms dictating that men should be fearless warriors, the narrator does not judge him for his deviance, and instead indicates his love of music. Likewise, despite Okonkwo’s outward harshness, the narrator explains that his disagreeable characteristics obscure a deeper sensitivity: “Down in his heart Okonkwo was not a cruel man.” The narrator extends the same objectivity to European characters, such as the missionaries and the District Commissioner. Notably, however, given that the bulk of the narrative centers on Igbo perspectives, the reader has a difficult time feeling sympathetic with European perspectives, even if the narrator presents them objectively.

One curious aspect of point of view in Things Fall Apart is the ethnographic perspective threaded throughout the novel. At many points, the narrator inserts commentary to explain certain elements of Igbo culture. Take one example from early in the novel, when the skilled orator Okoye asks Unoka to repay a debt: “Among the Ibo the art of conversation is regarded very highly, and proverbs are the palm-oil with which words are eaten.” Instead of presenting the exact proverbs Okoye uses to request that Unoka pay him back, the narrator simply informs the reader about the cultural importance of such rhetoric. The reader learns that proverbs function to diminish the impact of difficult conversations and can then apply this lesson when encountering other proverbs later in the story. Similar examples of an ethnographic perspective occur throughout the novel, and although they serve an explanatory, contextualizing purpose, they also impose a certain narrative distance. When the narrator explains, “Darkness held a vague terror for these people,” the use of the phrase “these people” creates added distance that situates the implied reader outside of the Igbo cultural world. The narrator therefore serves as a cultural intermediary.