Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe (New York: Anchor Books, 1994; originally published in 1959. 209 pp)
Chinua Achebe was born in Nigeria in 1930. He is a graduate of University College, Ibadan. He left an early career in radio and become a Senior Research Fellow at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. Achebe was a professor of English at the University of Massachusetts and at the University of Connecticut. Achebe has won the first Commonwealth Poetry Prize, The New Statesman-Jock Campell Award, the Nigerian National Merit Award, and the Man Booker International Prize for Fiction. He was awarded more than twenty honorary doctorates and received the Honorary Fellowship of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. He died in 2013.
Let’s consider a quandary. In business circles, talk always consists of innovation. A static company is a dying company. If you aren’t changing with the times, you face diminishing returns and eventual dissolution. The stories are plentiful. Circuit City couldn’t adapt. RadioShack is nearing a same fate.
Seemingly, the biggest fish in the pond make a business out of change. They somehow find a way to anticipate the needs of consumers and meet them before you even knew you had them. Microsoft’s philosophy of a computer on every desk was all well and good until Apple convinced everyone about a computer in every pocket.
From a far different perspective, Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart analyzes the concept of change and ponders the value of tradition in a world setting its eyes on future growth.
Things Fall Apart details the life of Okonkwo of the Umuofia clan, a tribe based in Nigeria. A strong man in his village, Okonkwo has set himself apart from his father, generally considered a weak man.
“He had a slight stammer and whenever he was angry and could not get his words out quickly enough, he would use his fists. He had no patience with unsuccessful men. He had had no patience with his father” (4).
Much of the first half of the novel details the inner workings of the village — the traditions and festivals, the economic capacity of the fertile land.
But things change, as they often do.
Soon comes the white man — missionaries with a foreign religion and a different way of life. Hoping to rid the community of this extraneous way of life, the village leaders send the missionaries to build their church in the evil forest.
“The next morning the crazy men actually began to clear a part of the forest and to build their house. The inhabitants of Mbanta expected them all to be dead within four days. The first day passed and the second and third and fourth, and none of them died. Everyone was puzzled. And then it became known that the white man’s fetish had unbelievable power. It was said that he wore glasses on his eyes so that he could see and talk to evil spirits. Not long after, he won his first three converts” (149).
Despite this excrescence, the influence of Christianity grows, to the point where schools and government become a crucial component of life in Umuofia.
What Is to Come
With all these changes, Okonkwo finds himself isolated. He no longer connects with his community and he mourns these alterations.
“Okonkwo was deeply grieved. And it was not just a personal grief. He mourned for the clan, which he saw breaking up and falling apart, and he mourned for the warlike men of Umuofia, who had so unaccountably become soft like women” (183).
In essence, Things Fall Apart asks us to see Okonkwo’s way of life and to mourn with him when everything changes.
The Difficult Balance
At a macro level, the question of innovation applies to culture as a whole. Who are we as a people? What do we stand for? Are we changing with the times? Often, a culture of innovation has no patience for tradition, much like the shiny, new Christianity in Umuofia. What is tradition but a series of antiquated rituals we no longer need?
And yet, there’s beauty in tradition. The rites of a people connect them not only to their current relationships but also of people long since past. There’s a power in rehearsing words that great forefathers before you oft repeated.
Here is where the tension lies. The world spins madly on. Yesterday will never be as bright as tomorrow. The difficulty of human life consists of holding the tension between the values of what once was with the importance of moving forward.
Finding that balance is a big part of what it means to live. I’m thankful for Achebe’s Things Fall Apart for reminding me of this principle.
Verdict: 4 out of 5