Things Fall Apart

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Things Fall Apart Quotes

Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Anchor Books edition of Things Fall Apart published in 1994.
Chapter 1 Quotes

Among the Ibo the art of conversation is regarded very highly, and proverbs are the palm-oil with which words are eaten.

Page Number: 7
Explanation and Analysis:

When Okoye visits Unoka to collect a debt, he couches his request in an extensive set of proverbs. The narrator reflects, as a result, on the way local business is conducted indirectly, with a high value placed on the language that facilitates the deal.

Proverbs are one of the main structuring elements of this novel: They appear both in the interactions between characters and in the language of the narrator himself. Here, their importance is explicitly marked within the larger subset of the “art of conversation”—a phrase that renders minute interactions a matter of ritual and practice. Furthermore, a proverb—“the palm-oil with which words are eaten”—is used to describe the functioning of proverbs themselves. This meta-textual trick only further stresses the centrality of this stylistic device, and it also asserts that proverbs function as a kind of mitigation of what might otherwise be harsh or overly-direct statements.

The structural importance of proverbs is particularly important to note, because of how they operate differently from metaphorical or allegorical language the reader might expect in their place. Proverbs are similar to these devices because they use language or an image from another realm to reflect on an event, but they are tied to a specific shared cultural history—whereas metaphoric language tends to value originality and departure from shared history. Achebe thus fuses local artistic tradition with the form of the novel—which derives from European heritage—to fashion his own hybrid work.

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Age was respected among his people, but achievement was revered. As the elders said, if a child washed his hands he could eat with kings.

Page Number: 8
Explanation and Analysis:

Here the narrator reflects on Okonkwo’s rapid ascent in Ibo society. He stresses how personal prowess may grant someone a position above that normally permitted by his age.

This statement addresses a pre-conceived idea a reader might have about the Igbo society: that a constant hierarchy is maintained between elders and youth. Although that hierarchy is “respected,” the fact that “achievement was revered” grants personal acts a relatively higher status—and the following proverb reasserts how differences in position may be transcended if certain rules are heeded. Thus Igbo culture is shown to be dynamic and merit-oriented, a society in which mobility is permitted and encouraged based on personal achievement.

One should also note, however, that the proverb itself is said by “elders,” which seems to reinstate their relative power. That is to say, although their age is only respected and not revered—they are the ones selecting the exact proverbs and cultural norms that would allow someone like Okonkwo to gain power.

Chapter 2 Quotes

Dangerous animals became even more sinister and uncanny in the dark. A snake was never called by its name at night, because it would hear. It was called a string.

Page Number: 9
Explanation and Analysis:

After Okonkwo hears a call summoning the men to the marketplace, the narrator observes the symbolic importance of darkness in Umuofia society. He stresses the fears its citizens feel in the night, particularly that of wild animals.

These lines help clarify the way Umuofia society conceives of both superstition and language. In the first case, a dark environment generates increased paranoia: The animals are not simply perceived to be more sinister, but they actually “became” so. (Notably, the narrator himself is shown to be a outside observer on this cultural association, while the Umuofia citizens are fully imbedded it in.) Similarly, those of Umuofia believe there to be an inherent link between the language they use and its effects on the spiritual functioning of the world. As when the narrator stressed the importance of proverbs, this line confirms the central role of language in Umuofia society. Indeed, it is believed to be capable of altering the course of actual events, such as causing a snake to hear—instead of just playing a communicative function.

…[Okonkwo] was not afraid of war. He was a man of action, a man of war. Unlike his father he could stand the look of blood. In Umuofia's latest war he was the first to bring home a human head.

Related Characters: Okonkwo, Unoka
Page Number: 10
Explanation and Analysis:

Okonkwo wonders about the nature of the town meeting, guessing, perhaps, that it will bring news of a war. These thoughts cause him to reflect on his recent successes, and to offer a brazen confidence in future battles.

This passage reiterates how Okonkwo is both brave and violent; his strength is impressive but also takes rash and aggressive forms. He first defines himself in terms of “action” and “war,” indicating that these are the primary components of his identity. Next, he contrasts these features with those of his father, reiterating the way Okonkwo chooses assertive behaviors as a way to distance himself from his father’s weakness. The reference to a “human head” both serves as an example of this military strength and adds a further piece of information about Umuofia society: warfare includes the taking of prizes and trophies to demonstrate one's military prowess.

Yet we should note that Okonkwo does not pause to consider other reasons a meeting would have been called—instead he immediately jumps to a violent conclusion. Although Okonkwo is indeed correct that the call signals conflict with another clan, his tendency to jump to aggressive conclusions foreshadows how his defaulting to violence will bring his downfall.

And in fairness to Umuofia it should be recorded that it never went to war unless its case was clear and just and was accepted as such by its Oracle – the Oracle of the Hills and the Caves. And there were indeed occasions when the Oracle had forbidden Umuofia to wage a war. If the clan had disobeyed the Oracle they would surely have been beaten, because their dreaded agadi-nwayi would never fight what the Ibo call a fight of blame.

Page Number: 12
Explanation and Analysis:

As the people of Umuofia make their demands on Mbaino, the narrator observes how the decision of going to war is made. He explains that it rests on the resolution of the Oracles, and that their affirmation is necessary for a successful campaign.

These lines point to the complex and mediated system in Umuofia for deciding whether to engage in violence. The town does not act immediately, but rather must consult a spiritual authority—in addition to calling together the members of the town to offer their opinions. After establishing this process, the narrator is careful to offer examples of its efficacy—the moments when war was “forbidden.” And finally, he observes the reason for their listening: they would lose the war, for it would be a “flight of blame” and thus one not based on honor or divine-sanctioned need. The term “agadi-nwayi” here means literally “old woman,” but it symbolizes the “medicine” or magic power of each clan.

This final note on losing unsanctioned battles is an important clarification. It shows the Oracles not simply to be bureaucratic steps intended to slow down decision-making, but rather to be invested with actual prophetic and spiritual power. In this way, the narrator shows Umuofia to hold a compelling justification and decision-making process for their battles—and he also foreshadows the shock the characters will feel when the Oracles are incapable of predicting the actions of the white men.

Even as a little boy he had resented his father's failure and weakness, and even now he still remembered how he had suffered when a playmate had told him that his father was agbala. That was how Okonkwo first came to know that agbala was not only another name for a woman, it could also mean a man who had taken no title. And so Okonkwo was ruled by one passion – to hate everything that his father Unoka had loved. One of those things was gentleness and another was idleness.

Related Characters: Okonkwo, Unoka
Page Number: 13
Explanation and Analysis:

As the narrator describes the harsh way Okonkwo organizes his family, he makes repeated reference to the character’s childhood. He claims that Okonkwo’s actions today result from wishing to distance himself from a father he perceived as weak.

Okonkwo’s great aversion to weakness can, here, be pinpointed to a single memory, and indeed a similar word: agbala. Once more, the narrator stresses the importance of language within Umuofia society, for the label “agbala” to designate a feminine and untitled man is sufficient to structure Okonkwo’s entire relationship to his father and to his own identity. That one word defines the “one passion” that controls Okonkwo, indicating that his personality is singularly driven—and thus corroborating the way he is remarkably strong but unable to deviate from this harsh singular viewpoint. He can see no need for “gentleness” or “idleness” in any setting whatsoever.

This passage implies that Okonkwo’s strict personality is neither an inherent quality he was born with nor a reflection of Umuofia society, but rather a reaction to his father. It also gives a complicated image of gentleness in Umuofia society, and the narratorial distance from Okonkwo’s perspective implies that his may not be the only pertinent viewpoint. Indeed, the text implies that Okonkwo’s single-mindedness may have left him blind to the way that gentleness may indeed be an effective element of his household. 

Chapter 3 Quotes

Unoka was an ill-fated man. He had a bad chi or personal god, and evil fortune followed him to the grave, or rather to his death, for he had no grave. He died of the swelling which was an abomination to the earth goddess.

Related Characters: Unoka
Page Number: 18
Explanation and Analysis:

The narrator continues to recount Unoka’s backstory and his effect on Okonkwo’s development. He observes that Unoka’s failures were the result of a bad fate and personal god—both of which became visualizable in his death.

Whereas earlier descriptions of Unoka blame personality flaws for his failure, this passage attributes responsibility far more to destiny: in particular, “ill-fated” and “evil fortune” position blame on an external sources. Yet, the idea of “bad chi or personal god” is more ambiguous: the phrase implies that Unoka was born into his state, but it also equates that state directly with his personality, for the god is “personal.” That is to say, Unoka cannot blame his actions on external and universal gods, but rather experiences ill will due to one more intimately tied with his identity. The passage thus leaves a level of ambiguity on where to position personal accountability within Umuofia society. Although much value is attributed to holding an excellent work ethic, here that ethic itself seems to come from destiny.

The role of destiny is highlighted by the importance placed on Unoka’s cause of death. That he “died of the swelling” is naturally not a result of personal inadequacy, but rather an external curse. Yet it is also “an abomination to the earth goddess,” as if Unoka himself had been in cahoots with the “personal god.” Due to his cause of death, Unoka has to be buried in the Evil Forest instead of in a grave, which only verifies how separate he is from Umuofia society. Thus although the passage seems to absolve him of some guilt, it also reinstates the harsh social reaction—which extends even into his death.

Chapter 4 Quotes

But the Ibo people have a proverb that when a man says yes his chi says yes also. Okonkwo said yes very strongly; so his chi agreed.

Related Characters: Okonkwo
Page Number: 27
Explanation and Analysis:

The narrator offers this proverb to help contextualize why Okonkwo has been so successful. He confirms the importance of fate, but also notes that Okonkwo’s personality has itself shaped fate.

These lines clarify the perceived role of destiny in Umuofia society. For while “chi” might seem to prescribe one’s experiences, here it is revealed to be in a more dynamic relationship with the characters’ identities. They can influence it by saying yes—that is to say by working hard, exhibiting motivation, and demanding personal success. Furthermore, the text reiterates why Okonkwo’s prowess is met with acclaim by the society—because it reveals both a good chi and a personality that has said “yes very strongly.” Thus the text seeks to, if not resolve, as least mediate between accounts of fate and of personal success, by stressing how the two intertwine in one’s chi.

Okonkwo did as the priest said. He also took with him a pot of palm-wine. Inwardly, he was repentant. But he was not the man to go about telling his neighbors that he was in error. And so people said he had no respect for the gods of the clan.

Related Characters: Okonkwo
Page Number: 31
Explanation and Analysis:

After Okonkwo beats his wife during the Week of Peace, he repents before the priest of Ani. Yet his pride prevents him from showing this repentance publicly, which earns him a level of social admonishment.

This moment demonstrates the importance in Umuofia society of external performance: although Okonkwo is repentant “inwardly,” his response is deemed unacceptable because it does include a corresponding act for “his neighbors.” Thus religion is presented as a both private and public act—and remorse becomes something that must be externalized for the entire society.

We see here, too, a notable shift in the society’s image of Okonkwo. Whereas before he has been presented in generally complimentary terms, here we have a clear instance where his personality has left him out of step with social norms: first, his insistence on aggression and rigidity prevents him from observing the Week of Peace, for he is unable to recalibrate his actions based on the circumstance. And second, his wish to remain ever-strong in front of his neighbors similarly causes them to misinterpret him as having “no respect for the gods of the clan.” Thus Okonkwo’s personal prowess may make him the epitome of certain Umuofia masculine values, but it also brings him into conflict with other spiritual and social norms.

Chapter 7 Quotes

Nwoye knew that it was right to be masculine and to be violent, but somehow he still preferred the stories that his mother used to tell…

Related Characters: Nwoye
Page Number: 53
Explanation and Analysis:

Although Nwoye has begun to take on more masculine tasks in Okonkwo’s household, he still retains a preference for the more stereotypically “feminine” pursuits.

This passage corroborates the strict divide between masculine and feminine in Umuofia society: certain chores and behaviors are deemed one or the other, and various characters are categorized according to which actions they perform. It is notable that biological sex does not necessarily correlate to the gender of the tasks that one prefers: Nwoye is a boy, but his preference for “the stories that his mother used to tell” reveals a feminine tendency that Okonkwo hates.

We should not forget, however, that the labeling of storytelling as feminine occurs in a novel—and indeed in a novel that constantly prizes proverbs and the way that Umuofia citizens (men and women alike) place a high value on language. Thus the reader should be cautious not to take the supposedly feminine quality of storytelling as negative, or even inappropriate for Nwoye. Indeed, the lasting power of the novel to have encapsulated the tale of Okonkwo indicates that storytelling has a longevity that will outlast the temporary masculine exertion of force.

And at last the locusts did descend. They settled on every tree and on every blade of grass; they settled on the roofs and covered the bare ground. Mighty tree branches broke away under them, and the whole country became the brown-earth color of the vast, hungry swarm.

Page Number: 56
Explanation and Analysis:

The arrival of the locusts brings a source of welcome food, but also a nuanced omen for Umuofia society.

It is important to differentiate between the meaning of the locusts in Achebe’s text and the symbolism many readers might expect: though locusts in a Judeo-Christian context are a plague and an indication that a society has sinned, here they are welcomed as nourishment. Although their presence may be oppressive, they are not taken as the same negative omen as one might expect. That symbolic distance is particularly notable considering the way Christianity will later enter into the novel through the missionaries: here Umuofia exists independently of the missionaries and thus has not included the Christian meaning of locusts into its symbolic system.

Instead, the narrator points out an identification of the culture with the locusts—“the whole country” changes color and the physical environment is “covered” entirely by them. The repetition of “every” in “every tree” and “every blade of grass” only serves to reiterate this universality. They thus represent a widespread shift in society, foreshadowing a significant event, which will come to be the decision, at last, to kill Ikemefuna.

Chapter 8 Quotes

Ezinma took the dish in one hand and the empty water bowl in the other and went back to her mother's hut. “She should have been a boy,” Okonkwo said to himself again. His mind went back to Ikemefuna and he shivered.

Related Characters: Okonkwo, Ikemefuna, Ezinma
Page Number: 64
Explanation and Analysis:

Enzima gives Okonkwo a dish of plantains to break his fast, and she assertively commands him to finish them. Their exchange makes Okonkwo ruminate on her masculine qualities.

This passage further clarifies the gender roles in Umuofia society. Once more, the text divorces the sex of a character from the type of action he or she performs. It is possible for Enzima, for instance, to take on stereotypical masculine characteristics by being assertive with Okonkwo. This behavior earns her respect, for Okonkwo both follows the command and then praises her for making it. Yet when Okonkwo adds that “she should have been a boy,” the tone of the text changes: the masculine behaviors may be desirable, but they only make Okonkwo wish that they were housed in a male body as well. Thus even as the narrative breaks down some of the gender binaries at play, it also reaffirms them. Ultimately, at least for Okonkwo, the gender of actions and the sex of the character should conform to each other.

“The world is large,” said Okonkwo. “I have even heard that in some tribes a man's children belong to his wife and her family.”
“That cannot be,” said Machi. “You might as well say that the woman lies on top of the man when they are making the children.”

Related Characters: Okonkwo
Page Number: 74
Explanation and Analysis:

During the bride-price negotiation for Obierika’s daughter, a conversation begins on similar practices in other cultures. The characters recount a variety of customs and struggle to reconcile how other societies could behave so differently from their own.

This exchange focuses specifically on gender roles as they manifest differently across cultures. As an example of the broad range of customs, Okonkwo describes a more matriarchal one. This comparison causes Machi to respond with shock, and to compare familial ownership to sexual positions. Both characters find such dynamics unbelievable, even appalling, for they would attribute more social power to woman. Thus the passage serves first and foremost to reaffirm the highly patriarchal nature of Umuofia society: Machi is so set in his ways that he considers bedroom politics that are quite common in other places to be entirely outlandish.

More broadly, this exchange shows the simultaneous attempt and difficulty for Umuofia members to make sense of other cultures. Although the bride-price bit provokes a useful comparative reflection, it also stresses the narrowness of these characters’ perspectives. Achebe thus stresses the relative difficulty of accepting cultural practices that lie outside one’s familial experience and subtly hints at the importance of being able to negotiate with other norms.

Chapter 13 Quotes

It was a crime against the earth goddess to kill a clansman, and a man who committed it must flee from the land. The crime was of two kinds, male and female. Okonkwo had committed the female, because it had been inadvertent. He could return to the clan after seven years…

Related Characters: Okonkwo
Page Number: 124
Explanation and Analysis:

The narrator describes the social impact and symbolic significance of how Okonkwo accidentally kills Ezeudu’s son, and clarifies the necessary punishment in terms of the gendered nature of the act.

As before, Okonkwo performs an act that is “a crime against the earth goddess,” only here the punishment is far harsher than personal repentance. The distanced language of the phrase “a man who committed it” highlights how the punishment is not tied specifically to Okonkwo’s identity, but is rather an application of a universal law to his specific case. Next, the narrator delineates between male and female crimes: Since Okonkwo killed Ezeudu’s son by accident, his act is deemed “female,” but the murder is also presumably “male” due to its violent nature.

That Okonkwo has committed an act representative of both genders is quite revealing: if before, his character had been fully and overly identified with masculine acts, instead here we see the influx of the very thing he most fears: femininity. Yet the female crime is not the result of weakness, but rather the way that Okonkwo’s obsession with violence and strength has caused him to act rashly. Beyond reasserting the way every act is coded based on gender in Umuofia society, this passage indicates that Okonkwo is far from immune to female qualities.

As soon as the day broke, a large crowd of men from Ezeudu's quarter stormed Okonkwo's compound, dressed in garbs of war. They set fire to his houses, demolished his red walls, killed his animals and destroyed his barn. It was the justice of the earth goddess, and they were merely her messengers. They had no hatred in their hearts again Okonkwo. His greatest friend, Obierika, was among them. They were merely cleansing the land which Okonkwo had polluted with the blood of a clansman.

Related Characters: Okonkwo, Obierika
Related Symbols: Fire
Page Number: 124-125
Explanation and Analysis:

After Okonkwo and his family depart Umuofia, this group of men destroy his household. Their actions are described as neither malicious nor particularly voluntary, but rather as the necessary result of fate.

This language stresses how the citizens of Umuofia often do not identify their acts as individual choices motivated by emotions, but rather as the result of a divine system of justice. Describing them simply as “a large crowd of men” and repeatedly as “They” reiterates this dehumanizing bit—except for Obierika, who stands for a source of independent and questioning thought on the culture’s traditions. That these men “were merely [the earth goddess’] messengers” corroborates how characters often play two roles: individual actors in society, and supernatural agents organized by a higher power.

As a result, they can retain an emotional distance from the act, continuing to hold “no hatred” for Okonkwo. The trivializing language—“merely cleansing”—only serves to reiterate how inconsequential the action seems. Although previous passages have valued the role of individual agency in Umuofia society, this one reverts power back to fate, as a social organizer that enacts justice without personal implication.

Why should a man suffer so grievously for an offense he had committed inadvertently? But although he thought for a long time he found no answer.

Related Characters: Obierika (speaker)
Page Number: 125
Explanation and Analysis:

As the Umuofia mob destroys Okonkwo’s compound, Obierika questions their actions. He wonders whether their society should really punish accidental behavior.

Obierika is presented again as a critical eye on the functioning of Umuofia society. As opposed to the other characters, who obey traditions directly and assume they are inflexible, Obierika wonders whether the rules might not be modified to be more just. He thus embodies an important nuance in Umuofia: its ability to self-assess and potentially change. Though it would be easy to interpret the society as rigid and unchanging, Obierika is proof that the people of Umuofia can cultivate the independent thought necessary to alter its traditions.

Despite this potential for revision, however, Obierika’s thoughts are generally presented as hopeless musings rather than affirmative shifts. His rhetorical question gives him “no answer,” and while this lack of closure may signal his independence, it also reiterates his relatively passive position. Okonkwo’s punishment, nonetheless, serves as an opening for both reader and narrator to examine the state of Umuofia and to test the limits of its cultural norms.

Chapter 14 Quotes

A man could not rise beyond the destiny of his chi. The saying of the elders was not true—that if a man said yea his chi also affirmed. Here was a man whose chi said nay despite his own affirmation.

Related Characters: Okonkwo
Page Number: 131
Explanation and Analysis:

As Okonkwo begins his new life in Mbanta, he reflects on his disheartened and disenfranchised existence. Denying the active role than men have in their fate, he now considers “chi” to be an independent force ordaining one’s life.

This line turns an earlier proverb on its head: whereas before Okonkwo’s character was used as an example of someone who had said yes to his chi and therefore experienced corresponding positive effects, here he becomes the counterexample of that same saying. This passage shifts control to the power of destiny over individual agency, claiming that men and chi are not in a dynamic relationship—but rather that chi is capable of ignoring men’s affirmations.

To deny such a proverb is radical and somewhat blasphemous, in particular considering the high stakes of language and of the “elders” from which this “saying” comes. Thus Okonkwo seems to renounce not only his previous work ethic but also some key tenants of the society from which he hails. Indeed, this aligns closely with his earlier ambivalent relationship to language, in which Okonkwo often saw it as superficial or empty. Yet these lines mark a more complete renunciation of its expressive power.

Chapter 15 Quotes

“…I forgot to tell you another thing which the Oracle said. It said that other white men were on their way. They were locusts, it said, and that first man was their harbinger sent to explore the terrain. And so they killed him.”

Related Characters: Obierika (speaker)
Page Number: 139
Explanation and Analysis:

When Okonkwo visits Obierika, he tells of how the clan of Abame was destroyed by white men. The Oracle, he explains, predicted their arrival, and the clan interpreted the warning as a sign to kill the first white man.

In recounting the story, Okonkwo poses a complex question about the fate of the Abame clan. Ironically, it was in following their Oracle’s orders that the men brought about their destruction—but it remains unclear what this implies. Either they they misinterpreted the Oracle, acted according to fate, or followed mistaken advice from the Oracle. In the first case, we could say that the men reacted overly violently to what was only a warning; in the second, the Oracle’s comment on “harbinger” and “locusts” implied that the men could not be stopped, no matter what; in the third, the entire spiritual system would seem fated for collapse. In a sense all three are true, as will play out in the coming chapters.

The passage also reverses the symbolism of the locusts from before: whereas in both cases, the bugs represent a force that covers the land, here they are a pest that overpowers the people of Umuofia—whereas before they were subservient and served as a food source. Thus the white men represent not only an existential threat, but also a radical change to the symbolic and spiritual structures of Umuofia society.

Chapter 16 Quotes

He told them that the true God lived on high and that all men when they died went before Him for judgment. Evil men and all the heathen who in their blindness bowed to wood and stone were thrown into a fire that burned like palm-oil. But good men who worshipped the true God lived forever in His happy kingdom.

Related Characters: Mr. Brown
Related Symbols: Fire
Page Number: 145
Explanation and Analysis:

When Obierika visits Okonkwo, he witnesses the arrival of missionaries in Umuofia. He focuses, here, on the tenants of the Christian religion that have been evangelized in Igbo society.

This description of Christianity shows how cultural and religious norms will be interpreted differently as they manifest in different societies. For instance, consider how Obierika uses the proverb “burned like palm-oil” to translate the Christian concept of Hell into symbolism that functions in Igbo society. Similarly, the tenets of Christianity are rephrased so that they juxtapose directly with Igbo beliefs. That “God lived on high” contrasts directly with the Igbo Earth goddess who lives among the Umuofia people, and the Christian divine justice system similarly conflicts with the way law is meted out in Umuofia.

Instead of a set of oracles and society members who enact the will of the gods, Christianity holds only a single divine judgement that separates evil from good. Here we can see the glimmers of the ideological conflicts between the two: Christian missionaries will assert a single divine authority that directly opposes the social and polytheistic model embraced by Umuofia. Furthermore, by defamiliarizing these components of Christian doctrine, Achebe gives us a sense of how both missionaries and indigenous cultures would have perceived each other: as confusing and heretical.

But there was a young lad who had been captivated. His name was Nwoye, Okonkwo's first son. It was not the mad logic of the Trinity that captivated him…It was the poetry of the new religion, something felt in the marrow. The hymn about brothers who sat in darkness and in fear seemed to answer a vague and persistent question that haunted his young soul – the question of the twins crying in the bush and the question of Ikemefuna who was killed.

Related Characters: Okonkwo, Nwoye
Page Number: 147
Explanation and Analysis:

As Obierika continues to recount the arrival of the missionaries, he notes that Nwoye has been brought into their fold. Nwoye is, we learn, fascinated by the aesthetics of Christianity, as well as by the way their doctrine may resolve his own spiritual doubts.

A sharp differentiation occurs here between the spiritual beliefs of Christianity and the religion’s artistic creations: the first is deemed “the mad logic of the Trinity,” for it seems inherently self-contradictory, and directly conflicts with Igbo beliefs. Yet the second is “the poetry of the new religion” and “the hymn”: both neutral or positive terms. They highlight a universal artistic quality that can cross different systems of cultural belief. Achebe thus stresses how it is this more aesthetic material brought by the missionaries that aids them in their evangelizing endeavors, more than simple dogma or preaching.

Yet Nwoye also shows an attraction to some actual facets of Christian belief. That the religion offers an “answer” to the “question that haunted his young soul” indicates that it brings a quality Nwoye has found lacking in Ibo society: Specifically, it gives a model in which the abandoned twins would be treated with compassion instead of neglect. Achebe thus presents the missionaries’ beliefs as attractive to locals because they gave those who felt out-of-step or at-odds with certain practices an alternative framework with which to make sense of the world.

Chapter 17 Quotes

Living fire begets cold, impotent ash.

Related Characters: Okonkwo (speaker), Nwoye
Related Symbols: Fire
Page Number: 153
Explanation and Analysis:

Okonkwo thinks of this phrase as he reflects on the way Nwoye has converted to Christianity. Its image encapsulates how Okonkwo’s potent, ardent personality could give rise to a son deemed extremely weak.

This line marks a turning point in the text because it is the first instance of Okonkwo using metaphorical language—indeed, he seems to have invented his own proverb—indicating a source of genuine linguistic creativity. One might thus interpret this line as an indication that Okonkwo has embraced the softer, "feminine" characteristics associated with storytelling and language—yet the phrase itself implies just the opposite. Rather, it reinstates the hierarchy between Okonkwo’s masculine personality as “living fire” versus the weak, feminine Nwoye, who is “cold, impotent ash.” Though Okonkwo may have finally engaged in the game of imagistic language valued throughout the text, the way he does so only reaffirms his harsh and divisive views on the world.

Chapter 19 Quotes

“But I fear for you young people because you do not understand how strong is the bond of kinship…And what is the result? An abominable religion has settled among you. A man can now leave his father and his brothers. He can curse gods of his fathers and his ancestors, like a hunter's dog that suddenly goes mad and turns on his master. I fear for you; I fear for the clan.”

Page Number: 167
Explanation and Analysis:

One of Okonkwo’s kinsmen gives this speech during the feast thrown as they depart Mbanta. He acknowledges the importance of holding fast to rituals, particularly given the current presence of the Christian missionaries.

This passage shows both the importance of tradition in Mbanta society and the significant threat posed by the arrival of the white men. Although the reflection may be prompted by how well Okonkwo has observed traditional practices, its very articulation in the ritual points to a pervasive anxiety about the “abominable religion.” Thus even when Christianity is not directly present in the text, it holds a ghostly cultural power due to the fear it has provoked.

More specifically, the kinsman is apprehensive about the way traditions and practices have radically shifted in such recent times. Though earlier in the text, Umuofia was presented as holding the capacity to slowly alter its cultural beliefs, Christianity has clearly caused radical and fast-paced ruptures with old practices: familial abandonment and rejection are now commonplace, and the narrator stresses the cannibalistic and self-harming nature of these practices. Thus Christianity is presented as an affront to Ibo society not only for the way it has induced a revision of various cultural practices, but specifically because the new practices have divided the society.

Chapter 20 Quotes

“The white man is very clever. He came quietly and peaceably with his religion. We were amused at his foolishness and allowed him to stay. Now he has won our brothers, and our clan can no longer act like one. He has a put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart.”

Related Characters: Okonkwo (speaker)
Page Number: 176
Explanation and Analysis:

When Okonkwo returns to Umuofia, he broods with Obierika over the increasing presence of the white men. Their power, he claims, comes from the way they have fractured Umuofia and thus prevented the clan from mounting any genuine resistance.

Whereas earlier descriptions of the white men cast them as irrational and silly, Okonkwo here displays a level of respect: he notes they are “very clever” and interprets their actions not as weak but rather as a clever form of subterfuge through a false “foolishness.” This observation is surprising considering how Okonkwo always prioritizes brute strength—and it indicates a character development in that he is learning to value other types of power.

More specifically, the white men’s power originates from division: for instance how they have separated the Ibo Christian converts from those who respect Umuofia tradition—dividing Nwoye and Okonkwo himself. Variations on the phrase “put a knife on” reappear often throughout the novel’s closing chapters, thus stressing how subtly undermining the local culture can be its own form of violence. Thus Achebe highlights how colonialism’s strength came in many ways, not just from explicit force, but rather in subtle manipulation of local cultures that prevented them from forming a unified front.

Chapter 22 Quotes

One of the greatest crimes a man could commit was to unmask an egwugwu in public, or to say or do anything which might reduce its immortal prestige in the eyes of the uninitiated. And this was what Enoch did.

Related Characters: Enoch
Page Number: 186
Explanation and Analysis:

Under the inflammatory guidance of Reverend Smith, Enoch harshly violates Ibo religious norms. As an act of defiance, he removes the mask of an egwugwu—an act which will at last incite a retaliation against the white men.

That the unmasking of an egwugwu marks the greatest violation to Ibo religion deserves a bit of consideration: burning down a church might seem to be a far more aggressive act, but evidently they are held to be of equal significance. Why? Recall that both Ibo justice and spiritual systems are based on the ability for citizens to play two roles: they must at the same time be individual agents in society and de-personalized representations of larger social forces. By unmasking the egwugwu, Enoch destroys this careful calibration—equating the normal man with the incarnation of the divine. “The immortal prestige” vanishes, to be replaced by a simple human face.

His act, then, serves to demystify the entire religion and deprive it of its social power. Achebe stresses the social stakes of how a spiritual system presents itself to the “uninitiated.” The power of a religion, he implies, comes from not only from its aesthetics and credos, but also from the way it maintains a sense of mystery from the broad population. To have stolen that from Umuofia is the greatest sin Enoch could commit.

Chapter 25 Quotes

One of the most infuriating habits of these people was their love of superfluous words, he thought.

Related Characters: District Commissioner (speaker)
Page Number: 206
Explanation and Analysis:

When the District Commissioner speaks to Obierika about Okonkwo’s hiding location, he becomes frustrated at the clan’s ways of eluding direct questions. This annoyance leads to a general criticism on their love of proverbs.

Achebe encapsulates here the deep sense of cultural misunderstanding that has emerged between the white men and Ibo people. Describing proverbs as “superfluous words” entirely misses the series of complex social ceremonies that center around language—and reduces these practices to a set of unnecessary delays. To call into question the very nature of communication is to radically misunderstand the Ibo.

This preference for actions over words is also somewhat ironically in accord with Okonkwo’s beliefs. In a sense, both Okonkwo and the District Commissioner hold a preference for aggression that is simultaneously effective and narrow-minded. Both value straightforward communication in a way that alienates them from others, and both implicitly deny the efficacy of a novel as a form itself—for Things Fall Apart is itself full of proverbs, metaphors, and other language that would be deemed “superfluous words” by the Commissioner. Achebe’s text itself thus becomes an affront to the white men and a way for the Ibo linguistic culture to live on.

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