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Colonialism in Things Fall Apart

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Kenyan-Mexican actress, Lupita Nyong’o states, “What colonialism does is cause an identity crisis about one’s own culture”. Colonialism is the policy of gaining full or partial political control over another country, occupying it with settlers, and using it economically. Throughout Chinua Achebe’s novel “Things Fall Apart”, the white men try to build missionaries and impose their values and beliefs to convert the Nigerian villagers to Christianity, which causes the community to teeter on the brink of disaster. As in Rudyard Kipling’s poem, “The White Man’s Burden”, the white men believed that the foreign people needed guidance. Kipling called it “The White Man’s Burden” to help the “new-caught, sullen peoples/Half-devil and Half-child”. We also find this same theme in William Butler Yeats’s poem “The Second Coming”. The native’s beliefs are being questioned as the white men impart their culture upon them and this causes chaos. Chinua Achebe clearly uses “Things Fall Apart” as a weapon and rebuke against western biases and to help others understand the adverse effects of colonialism.

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The novel “Things Fall Apart” tells the story of western missionaries bringing Christianity to a remote village in Africa. We immediately see the adverse effects and impact upon the Igbo people. The Igbo people are being forced to abandon their beliefs and customs which leads them to lose their values, traditions, and way of life. The white men believed that it was their calling to convert the villagers. “We have been sent by this great god to ask you to leave your wicked ways and false gods and turn to Him so that you may be saved when you die”(Achebe 145). The story surrounds the protagonist Okonkwo, an important man in the clan. Okonkwo wants his village to fight back against the white men to preserve their culture. A crisis occurs when Okonkwo’s son Nwoye is swept up in the Christian beliefs. Okonkwo’s reaction to Nwoye’s conversion was fierce. “Now he is no longer my son or your brother. I will only have a son who is a man, who will hold his head up among my people”(Achebe 172). Okonkwo equated Christianity with being feminine or weak and feared that it would destroy not only his sons but his entire village.

The first missionary to come to the Igbo village was a man named Mr. Brown. Mr. Brown was a kind influence so he came to be respected by the clan (Achebe 178). He “trod softly on [the Igbo] faith” (Achebe 178). As a result of Mr. Brown’s way of teaching a new faith, “There were many men and women in Umuofia who did not feel as strongly as Okonkwo about the new dispensation”(Achebe 178). Mr. Brown’s successor, Mr. Smith, was much more intense in his conversion tactics. “He saw things as black and white. And black was evil. He saw the world as a battlefield in which the children of light were locked in mortal conflict with the sons of darkness”(Achebe 184). By this time, the villagers were so oppressed they had abandoned any sense of hope of retaining their traditions. The novel tragically ends when Okonkwo commits suicide symbolizing the ultimate destruction of the Igbo way of life.

Chinua Achebe’s novel “Things Fall Apart” shows the destruction of an entire civilization. His story was heavily influenced by William Butler Yeats’ poem “The Second Coming”. Achebe even named his novel based on the third line of Yeats’ poem. As in Achebe’s novel, Yeats’ poem illustrates that once a foundation of a community falls apart, everything else falls apart with it. “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;/ Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,/ The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere/ The ceremony of innocence is drowned”(Yeats 3-6). Likewise in the novel, when Okonkwo hangs himself it symbolizes giving up and a loss of hope. This scene in the novel helps support the theme of chaos entering into the lives of the Igbo people and demonstrates how Achebe uses his book as a weapon or warning of western biases. The imagery in Yeats’ poem of a falcon in the air with strong wings away from the falconer shows control is already being lost. “Turning and turning in the widening gyre/ The falcon cannot hear the falconer;”(Yeats 1-2). As the falcon sweeps higher and higher, the gyre widens and weakens the hold on reality. The falcon represents a cycle of civilization, like the Igbo people. It is also a symbol of perfect nature that is losing touch with reality. The falconer represents humanity’s attempt to control the world, which is represented by the white men in Achebe’s novel. Achebe is clearly warning how easily chaos can take over and things (customs, values, beliefs) fall completely apart and eventually disappear.

Rudyard Kipling’s poem “The White Man’s Burden” is another example of western bias.

It defines that the white man’s burden is to send the best European people to what they thought were dark, uncivilized places of the earth to save what they saw as savage people. This mirrors Achebe’s novel when the white men came to accomplish their mission to save the Igbo people. Throughout the poem, racism is portrayed in the way the Europeans saw the natives. “Your new-caught, sullen peoples,/ Half-devil and half-child”(Kipling 7-8). In both Achebe’s novel and Kipling’s poem, the narrator explains that trying to help the natives will save them. “And when your goal is nearest/ The end for others sought/ Watch sloth and heathen folly/ Bring all your hopes to naught”(Kipling 21-24). Both the novel and the poem, show the white men are imposing their “superior” beliefs upon people they see as heathens. And, in both cases, it leads to tragedy. Achebe uses his storytelling to express a clear picture of how “the white man’s burden” or colonization using western ideas can bring deadly consequences to native lands.

Chinua Achebe’s brilliant, yet tragic novel “Things Fall Apart” is like a resounding trumpet call, warning all people of the effects of oppression when any group of people imposes their beliefs upon a weaker culture. Achebe’s novel builds upon the ideas in the poems “The White Man’s Burden” by Rudyard Kipling and “The Second Coming” by William Butler Yeats to influence his readers to recognize the impact of change. In Achebe’s own words from his book “Anthills in the Savannah” he uses stories to express, fight, and warn others. It is “the story can continue beyond the war and the warrior. It is the story that outlives the sound of war drums and the exploits of brave fighters. It is the story that saves our progeny from blundering like blind beggars into the spikes of the cactus fence. The story is our escort; without it, we are blind” (Chinua Achebe).   

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