Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.

The Struggle Between Change and Tradition

As a story about a culture on the verge of change, Things Fall Apart deals with how the prospect and reality of change affect various characters. The tension about whether change should be privileged over tradition often involves questions of personal status. Okonkwo, for example, resists the new political and religious orders because he feels that they are not manly and that he himself will not be manly if he consents to join or even tolerate them. To some extent, Okonkwo’s resistance of cultural change is also due to his fear of losing societal status. His sense of self-worth is dependent upon the traditional standards by which society judges him.

This system of evaluating the self inspires many of the clan’s outcasts to embrace Christianity. Long scorned, these outcasts find in the Christian value system a refuge from the Igbo cultural values that place them below everyone else. In their new community, these converts enjoy a more elevated status. The villagers in general are caught between resisting and embracing change and they face the dilemma of trying to determine how best to adapt to the reality of change. Many of the villagers are excited about the new opportunities and techniques that the missionaries bring. This European influence, however, threatens to extinguish the need for the mastery of traditional methods of farming, harvesting, building, and cooking.

These traditional methods, once crucial for survival, are now, to varying degrees, dispensable. Throughout the novel, Achebe shows how dependent such traditions are upon storytelling and language and thus how quickly the abandonment of the Igbo language for English could lead to the eradication of these traditions.

Varying Interpretations of Masculinity

Okonkwo’s relationship with his late father shapes much of his violent and ambitious demeanor. He wants to rise above his father’s legacy of spendthrift, indolent behavior, which he views as weak and therefore effeminate. This association is inherent in the clan’s language—the narrator mentions that the word for a man who has not taken any of the expensive, prestige-indicating titles is agbala, which also means “woman.” But, for the most part, Okonkwo’s idea of manliness is not the clan’s. He associates masculinity with aggression and feels that anger is the only emotion that he should display. For this reason, he frequently beats his wives, even threatening to kill them from time to time.

We are told that he does not think about things, and we see him act rashly and impetuously. Yet others who are in no way effeminate do not behave in this way. Obierika, unlike Okonkwo, “was a man who thought about things.” Whereas Obierika refuses to accompany the men on the trip to kill Ikemefuna, Okonkwo not only volunteers to join the party that will execute his surrogate son but also violently stabs him with his machete simply because he is afraid of appearing weak.

Okonkwo’s seven-year exile from his village only reinforces his notion that men are stronger than women. While in exile, he lives among the kinsmen of his motherland but resents the period in its entirety. The exile is his opportunity to get in touch with his feminine side and to acknowledge his maternal ancestors, but he keeps reminding himself that his maternal kinsmen are not as warlike and fierce as he remembers the villagers of Umuofia to be. He faults them for their preference of negotiation, compliance, and avoidance over anger and bloodshed. In Okonkwo’s understanding, his uncle Uchendu exemplifies this pacifist (and therefore somewhat effeminate) mode.

Language as a Sign of Cultural Difference

Language is an important theme in Things Fall Apart on several levels. In demonstrating the imaginative, often formal language of the Igbo, Achebe emphasizes that Africa is not the silent or incomprehensible continent that books such as Heart of Darkness made it out to be. Rather, by peppering the novel with Igbo words, Achebe shows that the Igbo language is too complex for direct translation into English. Similarly, Igbo culture cannot be understood within the framework of European colonialist values. Achebe also points out that Africa has many different languages: the villagers of Umuofia, for example, make fun of Mr. Brown’s translator because his language is slightly different from their own.

On a macroscopic level, it is extremely significant that Achebe chose to write Things Fall Apart in English—he clearly intended it to be read by the West at least as much, if not more, than by his fellow Nigerians. His goal was to critique and emend the portrait of Africa that was painted by so many writers of the colonial period. Doing so required the use of English, the language of those colonial writers. Through his inclusion of proverbs, folktales, and songs translated from the Igbo language, Achebe managed to capture and convey the rhythms, structures, cadences, and beauty of the Igbo language.

Generational Divide

Things Fall Apart spotlights two significant generational divides. The first divide separates Okonkwo from his father, Unoka. Unlike his son, Unoka is not a warrior, nor has he distinguished himself as a man in any other way. Instead, Unoka prefers to drink and play music with friends. For a hypermasculine man like Okonkwo, Unoka’s lack of drive is shameful, and Okonkwo dismisses his father as a coward.

Just as Okonkwo is divided from his father, he is also divided from his eldest son, Nwoye. Nwoye has much in common with his grandfather Unoka, especially with regard to his lack of interest in war and his love of the arts. Nwoye resists his father’s expectation that he become an accomplished warrior. He also feels drawn to his mother’s stories, which Okonkwo sees as an effeminate waste of time. Eventually, Nwoye escapes his father’s expectations and his wrath by running away and converting to Christianity. Although Okonkwo feels ashamed of both his father and his son, the novel suggests that Okonkwo is perhaps more of an anomaly than either Unoka or Nwoye.

Pride

Okonkwo’s greatest weakness is his pride, which is constantly under threat both from within his community and from without. Okonkwo takes pride in his achievements. This pride is justifiable, since he has accomplished a lot. Not only has he proven himself among Umuofia’s fiercest warriors, but he has also climbed Umuofia’s social ladder faster than any of his peers. Yet Okonkwo’s pride also makes him quick to disdain others who don’t live up to his high standards. For instance, Nwoye’s apparent lack of masculine qualities leads Okonkwo to worry about his own legacy and be aggressive towards Nwoye.

Okonkwo’s exile in Mbanta also deals a serious blow to his pride. When he returns to Umuofia he wants to restore his pride by defending his home against European influence. Okonkwo explains his position with an analogy: “If a man comes into my hut and defecates on the floor, what do I do? Do I shut my eyes? No! I take a stick and break his head.” Okonkwo eventually resorts to violence to defend his pride, and this violence leads to his tragic downfall.

Repression

Throughout Things Fall Apart Okonkwo struggles with repressing his emotions. He represses his emotions because, more than anything else, he fears appearing weak and effeminate. Over and over in the novel Okonkwo’s inner struggle to quash all emotional responses leads him to express himself with excessive cruelty. The narrator comments on this internal tug-of-war frequently. In Chapter 4, for instance, the narrator explicitly addresses the theme of repression: “Okonkwo never showed any emotion openly, unless it be the emotion of anger. To show affection was a sign of weakness; the only thing worth demonstrating was strength.” Okonkwo’s belief that anger is the only appropriate emotion for a man to show causes significant problems for him, his family, and ultimately his community.

For example, when Okonkwo kills Ikemefuna against the advice of Ogbuefi Ezeudu, he does so because “He was afraid of being thought weak.” But Okonkwo’s brutal killing of his adopted son breaks the heart of his blood son, Nwoye. This act deepens an already-existing wound between Okonkwo and Nwoye, one that never gets healed. Throughout the novel, emotional repression leads to damaging—and eventually, for Okonkwo, tragic—outbursts of anger and violence.

Drum Language

Drums play an important role in Umuofia. Throughout Things Fall Apart the narrator emphasizes drums’ ability to generate excitement and even communicate specific information. Drums often signal the initiation of a ceremony. For example, a persistent drum beat sets Umuofia’s annual wrestling match in motion, and the sound fills the village until “their sound was no longer a separate thing from the living village. It was like the pulsation of its heart.” The narrator explains that drums speak in their own “esoteric language,” a language that villagers learn early in life.

In one telling example, the narrator transcribes the drum language phonetically: “Go-di-di-go-go-di-go. Di-go-go-di-go. It was the ekwe talking to the clan.” The narrator waits several sentences before translating the drum’s message: “Somebody was dead.” But more important than the message is the medium. By transcribing the drum language, the narrator elevates it to a status similar to the other languages that appear in the novel: English and Igbo.

Ethnographic Distance

The term “ethnographic distance” refers to a method in anthropology where the anthropologists distance themselves from the culture they are studying in order to make sense of that culture. At several points in the novel, the narrator, who otherwise seems fully immersed in Igbo culture, takes a step back in order to explain certain aspects of the Igbo world to the reader. For example, when Okonkwo’s first wife calls out to Ekwefi in chapter five, Ekwefi calls back from inside her hut, “Is that me?” This response may seem strange to non-Igbo readers, so the narrator explains the cultural logic of Ekwefi’s response: “That was the way people answered calls from outside. They never answered yes for fear it might be an evil spirit calling.” The Igbo world is full of spirits that may have evil intentions, and answering “Yes” to a call from outside could inadvertently invite one such spirit inside. Throughout the book the narrator uses ethnographic distance to clarify elements of Igbo culture to a non-Igbo reader. The narrator borders two worlds: one African and one European.