Things Fall Apart

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Tradition vs. Change Theme Analysis

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The novel's title is a quote from a poem by the Irish poet W.B. Yeats called "The Second Coming": "Things fall apart; the center cannot hold; / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” Much of the novel centers on Umuofia traditions of marriage, burial, and harvest. Achebe's decision to use a third-person narrator instead of writing the book from Okonkwo's perspective demonstrates just how central the idea of tradition is to the book, since the third-person narrator can more objectively describe facets of Umuofia society—their love of proverbs or how they make judicial decisions, for example—to the reader than Okonkwo could as an insider to these rituals. As the quote in the epigraph suggests, though, these traditions that form the center of Umuofia society cannot survive in the face of major changes occurring around them. As the white men enter the clans and impose their world order upon them, Umuofia society spirals apart.

Okonkwo and his son Nwoye also symbolize tradition and change, respectively. Okonkwo's character represents tradition, since he holds conventional ideas of rank, reputation, and masculinity in high esteem. As the book progresses, however, Okonkwo begins to fall out of favor with the clans, and his descent signals the crumbling of traditional Umuofia society. His adherence to tradition also drives him to kill his own surrogate son, Ikemefuna, driving away Nwoye in the process. Nwoye feels cold when he contemplates certain aspects of Umuofia society—such as leaving infant twins out to die and the idea of sacrificing innocents like Ikemefuna—and this pushes him to join the Christians when he's given the chance later in the novel.

Tradition vs. Change ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Tradition vs. Change appears in each chapter of Things Fall Apart. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Tradition vs. Change Quotes in Things Fall Apart

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

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 4 Quotes

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

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

“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.

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

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.