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.
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.
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.
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.
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.