“Turning and turning in the widening gyre, the falcon cannnot hear the falconer; things fall apart, the center cannot hold; mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”
— W.B Yeats, “The Second Coming”
Things Fall Apart is the first of three novels in Chinua Achebe’s critically acclaimed African Trilogy. It described Africa’s encounter with Europe as it establishes a colonial presence on the continent. Focusing on the main character Okonkwo, it explores the consequences and influence of colonialism.
Though it is debatable whether this book contributes to the “single story” about Africa, it is still a great book to read. It is heartbreaking and intriguing at the same time. Hopefully the readers will not be blinded and misled by the stereotypes while they are reading the book.
Social Change by Colonialism
Sociologists unanimously agree that the first step of colonialism is to create local changes, which potentially lead to instability, local uprising and eventually European’s control over the region. These local changes could be changes in religion, power distribution, transportation, economy and many other aspects. Once the old norms are destroyed, the European colonists build new ones to replace them in order to ensure the instability and thus conduct conquests. In Things Fall Apart, Achebe introduces Umuofia, an African tribe in Nigeria and describes its unique cultural traits and its dramatic changes after the appearance of colonizers through focusing on the shifts in Okonkwo’s fate from a well-respected warrior to a corpse hanging in his backyard. Achebe argues that colonialism is effective in destructing the original cultural norms and creating new ones by writing about the changes in Umuofia in its religious, economic and judicial systems.
The white commissionaires efficiently destroy Umuofia people’s firm belief about their tribal gods and create new religious norms about the righteousness of their god by preaching Christianity to the people in Umuofia. Okonkwo and his family have strong beliefs about the gods as described in the first section of the book, and worship them with sacrifices of kola nut and other food, and offer prayers to them (Achebe). At the start of the book, Okonkwo and his family have systematic religious habits, and it is obvious that they all strongly believe in the existence of their polytheistic gods. After the arrival of Mr. Brown, who claims that “the worst thing about it is that you give all the worship to the false gods you have created” (Achebe), the firm beliefs start to change. Mr. Brown and other commissionaires bring to light a brand new religion, and they bring doubt and controversy to who the “right gods” are. Nwoye is one of the first people to be converted to Christianity, because “he felt a relief within as the hymn poured into his parched soul” (Achebe). Nwoye changes his normative personal beliefs about religion after he is introduced to Christianity, which reflects the colonists’ success in shifting religious norms. The people in Umuofia are criticized and looked down upon because of their firm belief in their gods, and many start to question their religion and even convert to Christianity as a result of the changes in empirical beliefs and normative expectations, which are enough to make changes to the religious norms. Unfortunately, Changes in religion are only the first step toward the final goal of generating instability and the European suppression.
Besides making changes in religion, the colonizers interfere and take control of Umuofia’s economy, and successfully make changes to their original systems in agricultural development and shift their norms. Before the arrival of the Europeans, people highly value the crops and have the tradition that “the new year must begin with tasty, fresh yams and not the shriveled and fibrous crop of the previous year” (Achebe). The agricultural system is self-sufficient and the crops are considered important and sacred by the people. However, things change after the white men build trading stores and start selling agricultural products like kernel and palm-oil (Achebe). By doing so the white men break the original long-held customs of agriculture and change the way the economics function. The Umuofian are forced to conform to authority and accept the new agricultural norms even though it is not their preference, and the colonists effectively make changes to their economic system by exporting agricultural products that used to supply their own needs. By shifting the norms of where the agricultural products go to and who control the flow of money, the colonists did most of their job but had one thing left to do, that is to change the governmental norms. After shifting religious and economic habits, the last indication of a place being completely colonized is the loss in authority in politics and other administration institutions, and the colonists achieved this goal by shifting the power form the elderly and respected to the churches and courts they built.
Achebe proves that colonizers are successful in changing these norms by writing about the challenges they pose at the judicial system and the destruction of the original court and judicial system they caused. At first, Evil Forest serves as a court where it sentences Uzowulu and leads to a loud murmur of approbation from the crowd (Achebe) when it was dealing with civil cases. Evil Forest resembles a court where civil conflicts are resolved and the guilty is punished, and it is rich in tribal traditions and represents its unique culture. Unfortunately, with the stronger power and authority, the white men are able to “built a court where the District Commissioner judged cases in ignorance” (Achebe). After the court is built, the original democratic system of resolving cases is completely replaced. People’s normative expectations change because they no longer think other people think they should use the original court system; people’s empirical expectations change because they think people are using the new court which had greater power. Both the empirical beliefs and normative expectations about the judicial system changed as people accept the new court, and old norms are replaced by new ones.
Through revealing colonists’ strong ability to shift cultural norms in order to completely colonize the place by writing about the normative changes in religion, economics and justice beliefs, Achebe conveys the idea that colonialism is destructive to the long-held cultural norms, and these norms would eventually collapse in the face of the new norms created by the colonizers. Even though colonialism doesn’t explicitly exist nowadays, its residuals still have a massive influence on the globe, and there still exist different forms of unmoral interactions just like colonialism between countries. It is important to understand the destructive effects these international interactions have on the countries’ original culture and norms and to prevent these interactions and promote fair ones. Achebe warned the audience about the danger of colonialism as it is capable of making original tribal norms collapse, and he also delivered the message of the importance of equal interaction between nations and nations in the globe in the future.
Information: Things Fall Apart- Chinua Achebe
Date: 1/8/2019 revised in June, 2019
revision comments: I only revised the wording and grammatical tense of this essay as the structure seems quite satisfying.