One of the first things readers may notice in Things Fall Apart is the sheer number of proverbial expressions. All cultures and languages make use of proverbial expressions. Common English-language proverbs include “A picture is worth a thousand words,” and “A watched pot never boils.” Native English speakers immediately comprehend the meaning of such expressions, without need for much reflection, but they pose challenges for anyone learning the language.
In Things Fall Apart, the subject of proverbs first arises in the context of a challenging discussion, when Okoye comes to Unoka’s hut and asks him to repay a longstanding debt. Okoye makes his request by speaking “half a dozen sentences in proverbs,” because “proverbs are the palm-oil with which words are eaten.” This statement itself constitutes a proverb about proverbs, and it emphasizes how proverbial language eases the difficulty of challenging conversations.
In Okoye’s case, proverbs enable him to address the subject of debt indirectly. Using less direct language reduces the risk that his words will offend Unoka and shut down dialogue. The indirectness of proverbs also serves as a reminder that they do no express the opinion of a single individual. Instead, since proverbs emerge from cultural tradition, they express the received wisdom of an entire community.
Although Achebe introduces proverbs through a dispute, he also incorporates proverbs in less charged moments. Achebe’s use of proverbs also infuses the novel with a uniquely Igbo perspective on a range of subjects, from the importance of mothers (e.g., “Mother is supreme”) to the relative value of action over words (e.g., “There is nothing to fear from someone who shouts”) and beyond. Such proverbs often do not occur in the context of dialogue, which means that they do not have a clear social function as they did in the case of Okoye and Unoka. Instead, Achebe places many of these proverbs into the mouth of the narrator, who uses them to comment on the story.
A powerful example occurs at the end of Part One, when the narrator concludes, “As the elders said, if one finger brought oil it soiled the others.” This proverb insists that Okonkwo must go into exile lest he offend the Earth goddess and spell Umuofia’s doom. Yet this proverb is also ominous, gesturing covertly to the coming of the first missionary and the future “contamination” of the nine villages. Here the proverbial expression has a narrative function, foreshadowing the chaos to come.