Things Fall Apart is set in Umuofia, the hometown of Okonkwo, a proud, angry, and hard-working man in his prime. Okonkwo has always felt a need to prove himself because he is the son of a failure, a man named Unoka who was heavily in debt because he preferred playing his flute and drinking palm wine to farming. Okonkwo first established himself as a man to be reckoned with by beating the famous wrestler Amalinze the Cat in a match at the tender age of 18. He provides for himself and his mother and sisters economically by share-cropping yams for a wealthy neighbor until he makes enough profits to get land and seeds and start his own farm. He does well enough that by the beginning of the novel he has three wives, a large compound with huts for each of them as well as a separate one for himself, and a large and growing family. His ambition is to take the highest titles of honor that his tribe can bestow.
Okonkwo is known for his bad temper and his willingness to be rude to unsuccessful men. At one point his temper also made him guilty of an offense against the earth goddess, because he forgot that the village was celebrating the Week of Peace and beat his youngest wife during the holy festival. The goddess' priest prescribed a series of sacrifices and penance for him to perform.
One day Okonkwo's village sends a challenge to a neighboring village because they caused the death of an Umuofia woman who had gone to market there. This village fears Umuofia enough to pay a recompense of one virgin and a young boy instead of going to war. Umuofia's elders decide that the virgin will marry the husband of the slaughtered woman and the youth will stay in Okonkwo's household until they reach a final decision about what to do with him. The boy's name in Ikemefuna, and he becomes good friends with Nwoye, Okonkwo's eldest son. Ikemefuna is clever and loved by everyone in the household. When Ikemefuna has lived with Okonkwo's family for three years, the elders finally reach their decision and say that Ikemefuna must be killed. He is marched in a procession, told that he is going back to his original village, and then deep in the woods one of the villagers hits him with a machete. The blow isn't fatal, and he runs in fear to Okonkwo, calling him father and asking him for protection. Afraid of being thought weak, Okonkwo strikes the boy down.
Okonkwo grieves deeply for three days after the death of Ikemefuna. Others tell him that it was a very bad omen for him to strike the killing blow. Slowly he forgets about it and participates in the ceremonial and economic affairs of the village, although the event marks his son Nwoye very deeply.
Okonkwo has another child, Ezinma, whom he cares about very deeply and wishes she were a boy because of her strong and decisive character. Ezinma is the only child of Ekwefi, Okonkwo's second wife, who deserted her first husband and married him for love. Ekwefi's first nine children died before reaching the age of five. The priests believed that she was afflicted by an ogbanje, or a child-spirit which loves to die repeatedly so that it can re-enter its mother's womb over and over instead of exiting and growing up. Ekwefi is depressed for the first five or so years of Ezinma's life, until it looks like she is a survivor, and then she becomes extremely loving and anxious of Ezinma. She has a priest perform a sort of exorcism of the evil spirit on Ezinma. When the priestess of the local Oracle mysteriously comes and carries Ezinma away on her back for one night, without giving any explanation, Ekwefi follows the Oracle all night like a madwoman and waits outside her cave until her child is re-delivered to her.
Shortly after this incident, the village celebrates the funeral of Ezeudu, a great man in the village and a priest of the earth goddess. It is a huge ceremony, and the egwugwu-masked dancers who represent the spiritual ancestors of the clan-participate in the ritual. All the men fire their guns in a final salute to Ezeudu. In the middle of the ruckus, Ezeudu's sixteen year old son accidentally catches a bullet fired by Okonkwo's gun. Okonkwo must flee the village for seven years because he has committed a crime against the earth. His friends quickly pack his yam crop into their barns and then he and his families pack valuables into bundles they will carry on their heads and flee to his mother's home. The men of the village come to his compound the next day and destroy it as penance.
Okonkwo is kindly received by Uchendu, his mother's eldest kinsmen, and lent yam seeds and land to farm. Okonkwo feels very depressed because he can no longer reach the highest titles in the land. However, he is reproved for his sorrow by Uchendu, who lectures him on the importance of mothers and the fellowship of kinspeople. Okonkwo does well in these years, and when it is time for him to leave he throws a huge feast of thanks for his mother's clan.
When he returns to Umuofia, he sees that the white missionaries who visited Mbanta, his motherland, have really taken root in Umuofia. They have established a school there and a trading post. So far only weak men have converted, but as the missionaries prove their endurance more wealthy and upstanding people join them. His eldest son Nwoye converts, and leaves the household for good.
The first missionary in Umuofia is a highly religious but kindly man named Mr. Brown who practices accommodation and tolerance in his cohabitation with the villagers. His health gives out, and he is succeeded by the Reverend James Smith, a rigid man who is intolerant of local traditions and thinks of the world as a battleground between good and evil. Smith encourages the most provocative of his new converts, including a man named Enoch who commits an act of sacrilege against the traditional religion: he unmasks one of the dancing spirits representing the clan's ancestors. The Mother of the Spirits walks the earth that night, mourning and emitting a bone-chilling wail.
To purify the village, the villagers go with the dancing masked spirits and destroy first Enoch's compound, and then the church building. They spare Reverend Smith, who comes out to protect his church. He, however, does not appreciate their gesture and calls in the British administrator to imprison the heads of the village until the villagers pay a large fine. These elders, including Okonkwo, are beaten and shaved in captivity. When they are released, they meet to plan their next move. Okonkwo is finally happy because they seem to be considering war. However, the British administrator sends some of his African officers to spy on the meeting and break it up. Okonkwo loses his temper and kills one of the messengers. No-one else follows his lead. In despair, he returns to his compound and hangs himself-a final desecration of the earth goddess. Suicide is such an unclean act that none of the villagers can cut his body down; they must ask the British administrator who has come to arrest Okonkwo to bury him.
At this point the book switches to the point of the Commissioner. He feels vaguely impressed by the incident and decides that it would be worth including in his memoirs-perhaps a full page, perhaps only a paragraph, since there was already so much to include. He plans, after much thought, to call the book: The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger.
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Points to Ponder
Did You Know
Chapters 1 and 2
Chapters 3 and 4
Chapters 5 and 6
Chapters 7 and 8
Chapters 9 and 10
Chapters 11 and 12
Chapters 14 and 15
Chapters 16 and 17
Chapters 18 and 19
Chapters 20 and 21
Chapters 22 and 23
Chapters 24 and 25