Things Fall Apart

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Themes and Colors
Tradition vs. Change Theme Icon
Fate vs. Free Will Theme Icon
Language Theme Icon
Masculinity Theme Icon
Religion Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Things Fall Apart, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Language Theme Icon

Language is a vital part of Umuofia society. Strong orators like Ogbuefi Ezeugo are celebrated and given honorable burials. Because clan meetings are so important for organization and decision-making, these speakers play an important role for society. Storytelling is also a form of education for the clan—whether they're masculine war stories or feminine fables, storytelling defines different roles for clan members and moves them to action. Even western religion takes hold because of story and song: when Nwoye first hears a hymn, it marks the beginning of his transition from clan member to Christian.

The white District Commissioner also notes the importance of language to the Umuofia, but in a less generous light. When speaking with Obierika, he thinks: “One of the most infuriating habits of these people was their love of superfluous words,” suggesting both the white men's condescension towards the Umuofia and how white language and culture will come to overtake that of Umuofia. At the end of the novel, the District Commissioner mentions the title of the book he plans to write about his experiences in Nigeria: The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger. The District Commissioner's proposed title here is itself wordy and grandiose—i.e. superfluous. But what distinguishes it from the Umuofia language is that it's book-learned—and it will be written down. The ability to read and write in English begins to represent power, as the white men provide more financial incentives for learning their language and more clan members choose to enroll in their schools.

Achebe's decision to transcribe several words from the Igbo language throughout the novel takes back some of this power, however, by suggesting that there are African ideas that cannot be adequately described in English. Achebe also uses repetition and idioms to create a more African style while writing in English. To add to this, what colonial rule and education unwittingly gave Nigerians was a common language with which to communicate with one another—by writing in English, Achebe is telling a story that people across Nigeria can comprehend, and by shaping it to his purposes, Achebe is claiming what was originally imposed.

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Language Quotes in Things Fall Apart

Below you will find the important quotes in Things Fall Apart related to the theme of Language.
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.

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 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.

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 16 Quotes

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 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 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.