Things Fall Apart

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Tradition vs. Change Theme Icon
Fate vs. Free Will Theme Icon
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LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Things Fall Apart, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
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Religion is the main arena where both cultural differences and similarities play out at the end of the novel. Religion represents order in both societies, but they manifest differently. While religion in Umuofia society is based on agriculture, religion is seen as education in the white man's world. As a result, the gods in Umuofia society are more fearsome, since clan members are at the mercy of natural cycles for their livelihood. Mr. Brown, the white missionary, condemns this idea of fearing your god, but in fact the white man's religion takes root using fear tactics as well. When clan members break certain laws or displease the white men, they're locked up, starved, and beaten.

The dialogue between one of the clan leaders of a neighboring tribe, Akunna, and Mr. Brown reveals how much both systems of religion have in common. Akunna agrees, for example, that their wooden carvings of deities are just that—wooden carvings—but he likens it to the figure of Mr. Brown: he's also just a conduit or symbol for the western God. Akunna expresses what the narrator has already suggested—that the Umuofia people only pretend to believe in certain aspects of their religion, such as the masked gods who are really tribe members wearing masks. This dialogue about religion does a lot to carry out Achebe's mission of depicting Nigerian society as one that's far from primitive—depicting it instead as a culture with mythologies and rituals and an understanding of the mythologies behind those rituals. It's also one of the moments when more similarities than differences are stressed between the two cultures.

Religion also returns us to the Yeats poem quoted in the epigraph. The poem uses plenty of ominous Biblical language in describing an apocalyptic scenario, which parallels the situation in the novel where religion is the vehicle for the fall of Umuofia society. Western religion breaks order in the Umuofia society by taking in outcasts and clan members without title and giving them power. By taking power away from the clan's authorities, western religion destroys the clan's old methods of justice and order, creating an apocalyptic scenario for the clan's former way of life.

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Religion Quotes in Things Fall Apart

Below you will find the important quotes in Things Fall Apart related to the theme of Religion.
Chapter 2 Quotes

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.


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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 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.

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 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.