Professor Kimble - Humanities III (680:023)

Study Guide
Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart (1959)




“I would be quite satisfied if my novels (especially the ones I set in the past) did no more than teach my readers that their past - with all its imperfections - was not one long night of savagery from which the first Europeans acting on God’s behalf delivered them.”

-- Chinua Achebe, Morning Yet on Creation Day (1975).


Historical Context

This novel is set during a renewed phase of European imperialism called the “scramble for Africa” when Africa was partitioned by Europeans in late-19th century, after 400 years of exploration and earlier attempts at conquest. At the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885, European leaders agreed to partition the African continent into neatly bordered “spheres of influence” that ignored existing borders. In the 19th century, armed with guns, fortified by ships, driven by the industry of capitalist economies in search of cheap raw materials, and unified by a Christian and racist ideology against the African “heathen,” aggressive European colonial interests followed their earlier merchant and missionary inroads into Africa. Nigeria became independent in 1960. 


Principle Characters

         Okonkwo – wrestler, farmer, husband to 3 wives

         Unoka – Okonkwo’s father

         Ikemefuna – boy taken from a competing village

         Nwoye – Okonkwo’s son (converts to Christianity)

         Chielo - priestess of the Oracle of the Hills and Caves (note her power)

         Ekwefi – Okonkwo’s wife, Ezinma’s mother

         Ezinma  - Okonkwo’s prized daughter

         Uzowulu – the Chief Priest, beats his wife

         Obierika – “man who thinks about things” and advises Okonkwo

         Mr. Brown – British missionary (tolerant of differences)

         Rev. James Smith – British missionary (intolerant)


Principle Places (fictional villages set in Nigeria)

         Umuofia – Okonkwo’s home village; “people of the forest” in Igbo.

         Abame – village massacred by whites (pp.138-141)

         Mbanta – village of Okonkwo’s exile


Study Questions

  1. What happens in this novel? How many narrative threads can you identify?

  2. How is the story told? Who's point of view is privileged? Why are there so many proverbs and stories told within the novel?

  3. How, why, and on what occasions do we see tensions between traditionalism and modernism?

  4. How does the arrival of Christian missionaries impact life in the Igbo villages?

  5. What are the positive and negative aspects of the missionaries activities? Can you see this from several points of view?

  6. How does local power and authority shift after the British arrive? How do the British exert their authority? Who helps them control the local population? How well do the British do?

  7. Why and in what ways does Okonkwo’s old society fall apart?

  8. What is the political perspective of Chinua Achebe, the author, on imperialism?

  9. What are the principle messages in this novel about the costs and consequences of imperialism?

  10. Imagine you are a journalist and you've been asked by two newspapers to write articles about what happened to Okonkwo and his village. For a British audience write article 1 for the Daily Imperial News and article 2 for a Nigerian audience who reads the Igbo Sun Tribune. Write a concluding page in your own voice about the two perspectives you explored in the article and what a balanced article would look like.


* Use the glossary at the end of the novel for translations of Igbo words and phrases *



Chinua Achebe (born 1930)



University of Northern Iowa

Maintained by Sara L. Kimble, Department of History, UNI.

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Last modified: March 05, 2007

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