Things Fall Apart: Revealing A Lifestyle Of African Tribes
The African clan of Umuofia described by Chinua Achebe in ”Things Fall Apart” is highly differentiated by gender. In this lesson, you’ll learn about the different roles men and women serve in the novel.
Think about the different jobs you see people do every day. Can you think of any that women do but men do not, or vice versa? It’s probably pretty difficult, if you can think of any at all. Our society is not strictly differentiated by gender. There are not really any aspects of society in which men or women are not allowed to participate. In some societies, though, this is not the case. We see very strict gender roles, or functions and social positions performed and held specifically and only by one of the two sexes, in the Umuofian society of Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe.
Women’s Roles in Daily Life
In Umuofian society, there are certain tasks designated to women that men simply don’t do. One of these is dinner. Women are expected to provide dinner for their husbands and children, usually at a certain time. When a man has multiple wives, each of them brings him part of his meal and provides dinner for her own children. When this expectation is not fulfilled, it creates tension in the novel.
We see an example of this with Okonkwo’s youngest wife, Ojiugo. She goes to a neighbor’s hut to get her hair plaited and does not come back in time for dinner. One of the other wives has to feed Ojiugo’s children without being asked, and Okonkwo notices her absence when he waits for his dinner and she does not show.
Okonkwo is so angry when Ojiugo returns that he beats her even though it is the Week of Peace, when any fighting or punishment is forbidden. As a result, he has to make sacrifices and offerings to the Earth Goddess, whom he offended by breaking the sacred peace. Here is a clear example of tension caused when a gender role isn’t filled as expected.
Men’s Roles in Daily Life
The men also have set roles in everyday life. They are in charge of village laws, making sure rules are followed and determining appropriate punishment. The exception is when punishment is ordered by the Earth God. His commands come through his Oracle, Chielo, who is a woman.
Men are expected to be protectors and providers. If there is war or conflict, they’re expected to fight. They are also expected to provide for their families. If a man’s farm fails, and he can’t provide for his family or must borrow from neighbors, he is seen as less than a man. This brings tension in the novel between Okonkwo and his father. His father is in debt and is a notorious coward, which makes Okonkwo, a very manly man who strictly adheres to gender roles, angry and frustrated.
In Umuofian society, it is sons who inherit from their fathers and help them in their work. Daughters cannot inherit and typically don´t help thier fathers the way a son would. Here again, we see gender roles creating tension in Things Fall Apart. Okonkwo´s daughter Ezinma is his favourite child. She knows him best and they get along better than any of the other children. Yet she cannot inherit, and even though she wants to help him, he won´t let her do any of the thingsboys are supposed to to because of his rigid adherence to gender roles. Okonkwo regularly laments the fact that Ezinma was not born a boy because he wants her to be able to inherit and help him the way a son does.
Think about the society you live in. If you were asked to define the role of women, what would you say? It would probably be a very difficult question to answer because in many societies men and women serve very similar and equal roles. However, this is not the case in all societies, especially in literature. In particular, men and women have very distinct roles in Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. In the type of society described in this novel, you can look at character roles in light of their gender, and even make some assumptions on that basis.
Home and family are a major point of Umuofian society, as they are with many societies. We can see that, in this society, women have somewhat of a subservient role. This starts with the very beginning of family: marriage. Men often take more than one wife, since having multiple wives is a mark of status. Women never take more than one husband, and in fact have very little say in who they marry, though their family might take their wishes into account when they decide if a suitor is acceptable.
Another aspect of the home is farming. Women and men are both in charge of crops, but different ones. Women are in charge of ‘women’s crops’ like melons, beans, and cocoa yams, and they look after livestock, like goats and chickens. The only farming they don’t do is yams, which is a ‘man’s crop.’ In addition to farming, a wife’s major role is providing meals for her husband and children, which she is expected to do without fail.
Home is also where we best see examples of how women are treated in the novel. Except for one special week of the year, men are free to beat their wives in punishment, even for something like being late to bring dinner, and there is no equivalent punishment a wife can give to a husband. Women are not really allowed to dole out punishment at all, except maybe to their children. However, they still have rights. If a man beats his wife too hard or too often, she has legal grounds to leave him and go home to her own family. Even then, though, her children have to stay with him.
Every so often, you’ll come across something designed to change the way you see things. There are many works of literature that aim to do this, which is one reason it’s important to look at novels in the context of the time they were written.
One example is Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. It was one of the first novels written in English that really challenged the European stereotype of African cultures at the time. Achebe showed the world how the Igbo people live, and the effects that the European missionaries had on those lives.
Things Fall Apart illustrates many different aspects of Igbo culture. For one, it shows us on many occasions they way they view religion. They are polytheistic, which means they worship many gods as opposed to just one, like many Western and Central Asian cultures do. Their gods and goddesses govern different aspects of the world and daily life, such as the earth goddess, Ani.
Different rituals and customs go along with each god. We can see this in the week of peace, which is observed to honor Ani so she will bless the crops. In addition, some of the gods have oracles. These are basically their mouthpiece on Earth. The oracles will sometimes be possessed by their god, and the god will speak through them and tell the clan what they need to do.
The novel also explores non-religious aspects of Igbo culture. For example, we see and hear about the different ceremonies and rituals that surround courtship and marriage. Men almost always have more than one wife, an important cultural aspect. We also see how the clan conducts aspects of war and some of how they keep and enforce law and order. Over the course of the novel, we get to see a wide array of different aspects of Igbo life and culture.
One aspect of any culture is the language that they speak. The language in the Igbo culture is Ibo. The novel itself is written in English, but there are many Ibo words. These words, and the knowledge that the Igbo people do not speak English, are important aspects of the culture. Some examples of Ibo words are egwugwu, which are spirits that walk the earth; nso-ani, which is the breaking of the week of peace; and ilo, or the village playground.
Knowing about the Ibo language becomes even more important when you think about the visiting missionaries. They spoke English and had to have interpreters. This set a bad first impression, and the African missionaries who did speak Ibo were more well-received. Language is an important part of culture, and there is nothing that sets you apart as an outsider like not speaking the language.
In addition to showing their customs and occasional ceremonias, the novel also looks into the everyday life of the Igbo people. They are farmers, and much of their lives revolve around caring for their crops. In particular, they focus on yams, which are their staple crop. This is the crop the men are in charge of, and the women grow several other kinds, such as melons and beans.
The Igbo people are also very clan-oriented. A clan is practically an extended family, and the lives of the members revolve as mucha round clan activities as around small family ones. Any family event is likely also attended by other clan members.
The clans also keep in touch with one another as we see when Okonkwo´s wives travel to see friends in other clans or when we hear news of other clans. Families who live in other clans keep up with each other and visit regularly as well-.
Background on Igbo Culture
Think about your society, including any religion you might belong to. What kinds of traditions do you have? Are there any traditional ceremonies or celebrations you remember seeing regularly? What about marriages or funerals? All of these kinds of things help make up the culture of a society. In Things Fall Apart, which is set in Nigeria in the early 1900s, Chinua Achebe describes Igbo culture, which encompasses polytheistic religion, father-son inheritance, farming traditions, and belief in evil spirits. Every major event that happens has some kind of significance based on the Igbo culture and whatever related aspect of it is being described.
Polytheistic Religion in Igbo Culture
Religion is significant in Igbo culture. They’re polytheistic, with different gods or goddesses to oversee each aspect of life. All of these gods and goddesses report to Chukwu, the head god. Different aspects of Igbo religion come up throughout the novel, and several times religion and religious observances play a major role in the plot.
One example of this is the Week of Peace. As Ezeani, the priest of the earth goddess, says: ‘We live in peace with our fellows to honour our great goddess of the earth without whose blessing our crops will not grow.’ This observance is an important aspect of Igbo society, and knowing this helps the reader understand the gravity of the situation when Okonkwo breaks the peace. Understanding Igbo culture sheds light on why this is an important incident, and why Okonkwo must make amends directly to the goddess through her temple.
Family & Farming in Igbo Culture
Familial traditions are also important to the novel. In fact, understanding father-son inheritance traditions in Igbo society helps the reader understand several major events. The son is supposed to help his father on the farm, and eventually the father is supposed to give the son a start on his own farm by giving him starter seeds for yams and a barn to store them in. Knowing this, we can better understand Okonkwo’s character.
We see first of all that, ‘Okonkwo did not have the start in life which many young men usually had. He did not inherit a barn from his father. There was no barn to inherit.’ Because his father was broke, Okonkwo had to start his own farm from scratch by begging prominent village members for yam seeds, which he paid back after harvesting. In addition, the fact that Okonkwo had to work harder than anyone else to start off with helps us understand his fierce pride in his farm, and his desire to have his son continue the Igbo father-son tradition.
This desire for tradition also shows up later in the novel. Okonkwo spends much of the novel training Nwoye, his eldest son, in the ways of farming, with the idea that he’ll inherit Okonkwo’s farm someday. Yet Nwoye ends up converting to Christianity adn going off to school leaving the farming life and Igbo traditions behind. Okonkwo´s experience with his father, and how hard he had to work so he could create a farm he hoped Nwoye would inherit, makes even harder for Okonkwo to accept.
It´s these traditions that help the reader see why Okonkwo disowned his son for abandoning them, which we find out when Nwoye´s friend visits him. He asks Nwoye about Okonkwo, but Nwoye can´s anwer properly: “I don´t know. He is not my father” said Nwoye unhappily.
Family is huge in this novel, because the family unit was very important in Igbo culture during the 1800s, during which Things Fall Apart is set. The Igbo are an indigenous Nigerian people. Families are very large in the novel, not stature but in quantity. Polygamy, or having more than one spouse, is a very big part of Igbo culture for the characters.
For example, Okonkwo, the novel’s protagonist, has multiple wives and several children, as do many men of Okonkwo’s village, Umuofia. Okonkwo feels that it is his most important duty as father and husband to provide for his family, because his own father was a terrible provider.
Okonkwo also feels that it’s his duty to be a much better father than his own father was to him. Okonkwo’s dad was a laughingstock and very lazy. He left Okonkwo with no inheritance, so Okonkwo is desperately afraid of becoming like his father. Yeah, that’s a pretty universal feeling, you might say. Nobody wants to become his or her parents. But Okonkwo so badly doesn’t want to become his father that he is very strict with his own children and his wives, even cruel. He threatens to kill his second wife at one point because he’s afraid of dishonor.
Family and honor are tied together throughout the novel. Okonkwo is forced into exile because he accidentally shoots the son of a village elder. At another point, Okonkwo’s family takes in a child from a neighboring village because the boy’s father killed an Umuofian woman and his exchange is the honorable thing for his family to do. Okonkwo’s daughter even refuses to marry in exile because she knows this won’t bring her father any honor in their home village.