Things Fall Apart takes place sometime in the final decade of the nineteenth century in Igboland, which occupies the southeastern portion of what is now known as Nigeria. Most of the action unfolds prior to the arrival of European missionaries. Accordingly, the geography of the novel is dictated by precolonial norms of political and social organization. In Igboland, clusters of villages band together to protect each other and guarantee their own safety. The action of Things Fall Apart centers on the fictional village of Umuofia, which is part of a larger political entity made up by the so-called “nine villages.” In Igboland, geography takes on gendered aspects depending on where a person’s parents were born. For instance, Umuofia is Okonkwo’s father’s home village, which makes it Okonkwo’s fatherland. When Okonkwo gets exiled for the crime of manslaughter, he and his family travel to another of the nine villages, Mbanta, which is Okonkwo’s motherland—that is, the village where his mother was born. The gendering of geography plays an important symbolic role in the novel, since Okonkwo sees his seven-year exile in the motherland as an emasculating threat to his reputation.
Just as geography has meaning in Things Fall Apart, so too does time. The novel is set in the 1890s, at the beginning of the British colonial incursion into Igboland. The story takes place in a moment of rupture, as the old ways of the precolonial period come under threat from—and eventually buckle under the weight of—pressure from Europeans. The novel dramatizes the very beginnings of British imperialism in the region, which started not with guns but with Bibles. As Achebe depicts in the book, it was missionaries who arrived first, paving the way for the civil servants who would eventually wrest political control at the point of a pen or, if need be, a gun. Although Achebe shows very little direct violence being perpetrated against the Igbo people, he implies the violence to come at the novel’s end, when the District Commissioner contemplates his book in progress, titled The Pacification of the Tribes of the Lower Niger. As any reader with a knowledge of Nigerian history will know, this “pacification” would be achieved with a great deal of bloodshed and heartache.