‘Things Fall Apart’: 50 Years Later

Travel Books: For many, Chinua Achebe's classic novel serves as an introduction to Africa. But Frank Bures writes that the place it depicts is now hard to recognize.

02.29.08 | 11:15 AM ET

Things Fall Apart coverSeveral years ago, while I was living in Arusha, Tanzania, teaching English at a local secondary school, one of my jobs was to teach literature. This was not as easy as it sounds. Our syllabus said we should cover 13 books. But in Tanzania, books were like bricks of gold, and they were stored in a room at the school that was locked up like Fort Knox.

Early on, I went to the headmaster and asked him what to do about this. In the end, I determined there were only two books which we could reasonably cover: Things Fall Apart and No Longer at Ease, both by Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe.

“Things Fall Apart,” which turns 50 this year, was a landmark of African literature. It was written by Achebe while in his mid-20s and was meant as an angry fist in the face of Western literature. Moreover, it was Achebe’s answer to Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness.” It told that story from the other side—the story of Okonkwo, a leader in his Igbo village and an important, powerful and unbending man. He was so unbending that when the white men came with their guns and Bibles and new ideas, he was broken by the changes they brought.

The publication of “Things Fall Apart” is often cited as the birth of modern African literature, and since its publication the book has sold some 11 million copies in 50 countries.The Chronicle of Higher Education wrote that for Americans, is it “the quintessential novel about Africa.” In fact, it is the foundation of tens of thousands of college students’ introduction to the continent, and forms many of our ideas of the place even today. 

That’s fine, and I realize that “Things Fall Apart” is required reading. But as important as it is, “Things Fall Apart” is a novel of the past. Since then Africa has changed so much and so fast that the amalgam of the world Achebe wrote about and the one we see today can be hard to recognize. These days, there are so many other great novels coming out that reflect the Africa of today: “Graceland,” “Waiting for an Angel,” “Purple Hibiscus,” and on and on. 

I saw this in my classroom, even among Achebe’s two books that we read. Noble as “Things Fall Apart” is, reading it today can feel tedious, with its drawn-out descriptions of dances and ceremonies and other forgotten values of traditional Nigerian life. This wasn’t lost on my students. They treated the book with weary reverence, while staring out the window and passing notes to each other. 

But when we moved on to the second book, “No Longer at Ease,” they were suddenly interested. Published in 1960, the book turns away from the past to tell story of modern Nigeria through Obi Okonkwo, the grandson of the tragic hero of “Things Fall Apart.” After coming home from his studies in England, Obi is poised to be one of the country’s new leaders as it prepares for independence. He is the pride of the village where his grandfather Okonkwo was once a great man.

My students were electrified by the story. This was a book they could see the point in. It was about sex. It was about corruption. It was about how to make your way through the quasi-Westernized world. It was a book about them: Obi won a scholarship. Obi went to night clubs. Obi fell in love with a beautiful girl his parent would never let him marry. Obi got a good government job—with a car! He was torn between the old and new worlds in the same ways they were.

Yet Obi’s story was no less tragic than his grandfather’s. When he first returns to Nigeria, he is happy in his new job at the Scholarship Board, but things soon get complicated. The bright young leader—quoting Auden and Eliot and theorizing about the evils of bribery—soon finds his debts piling up. And as he forges his own path in the same reckless way his grandfather did, he breaks both old traditions and new laws. Obi sinks lower and lower until the temptations and entanglements and blurry lines become too much, and he ends up becoming exactly what he hates.

“Things Fall Apart” may be a cornerstone of African literature and the book Achebe is remembered for. But Achebe’s second novel is infinitely more relevant to the Africa of today—the world of cars and dance clubs and hospital bills. Achebe may have written the great novel about the moment two worlds collided and fell apart. But the story of what happened when they were put back together is far richer, more complex, and a lot more fun to read.

Frank Bures is a contributing editor at World Hum, where his stories have won several awards. More of his work can be found at frankbures.com.

8 Comments for ‘Things Fall Apart’: 50 Years Later

Julie 02.29.08 | 12:43 PM ET

Great piece. Thanks for this.

Sue 03.01.08 | 12:18 AM ET

“Things Fall Apart” was one of the first real books I read about Africa several years ago. It’s sad that children of color have no interest in the past, because that is the substance of who they are. My point of view is from a young African American whose history is celebrated once a year, and not well represented in the history course books. As Western culture replaces many old traditions and values, there is much that is forgotten, and eventually lost.

Jossy Idam 03.04.08 | 11:54 AM ET

Hey Frank,
Great piece. You’ve said it, and i agree. jossy

Jesse Markham 03.23.08 | 5:22 PM ET

Mahalo for the aricle—like many, I read “Things Fall Apart” in an History of Africa course in my first semester in college. I still remember the book to this day and only learned as I got older the popularity of the book. However, I’ll have to see out “No Longer At Ease” as well as the other books mentioned.

Abby Schmelling 03.27.08 | 6:21 PM ET

It was so interesting to hear from Frank and a teacher’s perspective about “Things Fall Apart” in the context of African life today.  It was a defining novel for me as I worked on my MA in African Languages and Literature in the late ‘60’s. And I used it also when I taught African literature along with other novels from West Africa and South Africa that dealt with the death of traditional culture. Thanks for the update.

Jumoke Verissimo 04.03.08 | 8:48 AM ET

I respect your opinion on Things Fall Apart, and I appreciate how you stressed that Africa has moved from a rustic hamlet to a city—something many in the West continue to ignore. Nigeria, especially is a spectacular sight for tourists. Thanks Frank. Many thanks.

wherecaniclub group 07.04.08 | 4:53 PM ET

Well i got to admit “Things Fall Apart” provoked some of the best discussions I’ve ever experienced in my whole life. As a reader, it has enriched my life. My thanks to Chinua Achebe for his marvelous contribution to literature, not just for the african one, but to world literature! Not just with this book but also with “ARROW OF GOD” and others…
I totally agree with frank, we’ve been to africa lately to cover the black continents latest developments in the nightlife scene and we lived in our own skin the changes, the “developments”!

Amanfo Arinze 10.28.08 | 12:38 PM ET

It only takes a mind of a genus to unravel the myth of chinua Achebe and Thims fall apart. Frank and his Students are definitely not Genus’s. Thing Fall apart is as relevant in the present world as it was in 1958 when the genus Chinua wrote it.

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