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How "Things Fall Apart" by Chinua Achebe Is Structured

John is currently pursuing a bachelor's degree in History from Montclair State University and thoroughly enjoys reading literature.


Basic Story Structure

Chinua Achebe’s novel, Things Fall Apart, is structured around the life and culture of an African tribe—the Ibo. This tale is told from the perspective of the main character, Okonkwo, and is about how the Ibo lost their way and themselves.

While many novels center around the conflict and its resolution, Achebe breaks from this tradition. His novel is structured such that the life of the Ibo is showcased before the main conflict. The arrival of the white men is central to the story. Their arrival is what changes the Ibo and other peoples of Africa, causing conflict on the individual, family, and community levels.

In this novel, there is no true resolution. The main character takes his own life from shame, and the conflicts never come to a clean resolution as they do in so many other novels. Rather, the lack of a resolution helps to show the despair and sense of loss that surrounds the conflict. Achebe uses this lack of resolution to showcase the fractured history of Africa, where many conflicts are still unresolved. The plot is broken into three parts, each with differing circumstances and points of focus.

Okonkwo was well known throughout the nine villages and even beyond. His fame rested on solid personal achievements. As a young man of eighteen, he had brought honor to his village by throwing Amalinze the Cat. Amalinze was the great wrestler who for seven years was unbeaten, from Umuofia to Mbaino."

— Chapter One

Structure of Part One

The first part of this novel is focused on the life of the people in the tribe, their customs and traditions, the structure of the power, their religion. This part is how the tribe was well before the white men arrived. The life of the village is based around these, as much as any other community. Okonkwo, the main character of the story, is a strong, harsh man who built himself, molding himself into the exact opposite of his father. He is a great warrior, who takes pride not only in his success, but also in the ways of his people, as well as their strength and traditions. He is very much an "old school" traditionalist. He is extremely stubborn,and used to getting his own way. He places his whole life on the traditions of his people. Even in his day to day life, he is doing his work the traditional way. He goes so far as to sacrifice a boy he thought of as his son to these customs. In his tribe he is a well-respected man, a hard worker who is deserving of a title.He is listened to when he speaks, and is something of a leader. The reason that this part focuses in so much on the culture and traditions of the tribe is for the later juxtaposition between what the tribe was, and what the tribe becomes later on.

Chapter 10 shows a form of government, a respected court that not only represents one village, but many. This is one of the most important chapters in the book. The Egwugwu, the closest thing the tribes have to a central government. They are the highest form of government, and a way to settle major disputes between clans. It also marks the ending of part one. After this part, not only is Okonkwo exiled to his motherland, the tribe that his mother hailed from. This is a huge insult to Okonkwo. He is not mature enough to be away from the motherland. In essence, this decision means that the tribes no longer believe him to be an adult, and thus needs to be treated as a child would be. This marks a period of change in the book. It's here that the book shifts to the second half.

It was like beginning life anew without the vigor and enthusiasm of youth, like learning to become left-handed in old age."

— Chapter 14, pg. 113

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Structure of Part Two

In Part Two, rumors begin of the white people that destroyed an entire village. Instead of action, which is what Okonkwo advocates for, there is only talk. Here he is not nearly as respected, and few will listen to him. Things slowly begin to change in his motherland, at first subtly, then not so subtly. The white men begin to move in, bringing with them strange customs and curious religions. Some of his mother's tribe convert to their religion. The cultural shift is now in full swing. This leaves the main character off balance. Change is difficult, especially when it appears that one's fortunes are turning against them. He has gone from a wealthy, respected man to one that is no longer respected or wealthy. He had been shamed before both his people and the people of his mother.

Okonkwo plans to return to his village, believing that they would not be fooled by the white man’s trickery, that they would remain true men and force the white man to flee. He focuses on regaining his title in his village, knowing that things had changed, that someone has taken his place. Okonkwo is attempting to regain his authority and rebuild his life. After such a major change, he attempts to find both stability and comfort in familiarity. He constantly plans his return and focuses on how he will regain his honor and rebuild his compound. He envisions a life better than the one he had left, one still based upon his people's traditions and customs. He has little idea how much his village had changed in the years he was absent.

Obierika, who had been gazing steadily at his friend’s dangling body, turned suddenly to the District Commissioner and said ferociously: “That man was one of the greatest men in Umuofia. You drove him to kill himself; and now he will be buried like a dog…”

— Chapter 25

Structure of Part Three

The third and last part of the novel is Okonkwo’s return to his village. This is the climax of the novel and accentuates the amazing amount of change the Ibo people have gone through. The white man had taken root and begun to spread rapidly in Okonkwo's old village. They had brought a church and their form of government in order to civilize the savages, unknowing of the ties they were breaking. The people of the tribes saw the change as good. After all, it was progress. They would be able to join the outer world that they were now learning about. While Okonkwo rages for war, he is silenced by his own clan and the white man. They no longer want the old ways. They now believe their old ways were erroneous. The Ibo people were broken. Their old ways and traditions lost as they changed more and more to how the white men preferred to live. The final betrayal, for Okonkwo, comes when his own son joins the white people. This last act of betrayal by his own son proves too much to bear, and Okonkwo takes his own life.

Analysis of Structure

The main reason for the structure of the novel is to accentuate the downfall of the Ibo people. It would not have been as pointed if the book had followed a normal structure. The loss of their customs would not have had the same impact if only a little was known about them. Under a normal structure, the novel would not have had the same impact on the readers. Achebe wanted the readers to feel at least an echo of the loss the was shared by a majority of the continent at the time.

This novel also touches on some contemporary problems. How much tradition do we keep as we progress? Is sacrificing everything worth the progress? How much of our own self is locked in our history and what happens when we forget this history? There will always be those who push so hard for progress and the forgetting of traditions, and those who never want to change at all. Here, we can see what happens to those two extremes. The tribe seems to lose their identity, and Okonkwo takes his life.

© 2011 John Jack George


Nabila Rubab from Bhalwal, Sargodha, Punjab on December 18, 2019:

Very fine portray. I read the novel during my course this is the best African novel in my view

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