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
Tradition vs. Change Quotes in Things Fall Apart
Among the Ibo the art of conversation is regarded very highly, and proverbs are the palm-oil with which words are eaten.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.”
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…
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.
“…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.”
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.
Living fire begets cold, impotent ash.
“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.”
“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.”
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.