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Perhaps one of the most influential elements of literature, a setting may potentially dictate the plotline of a story, establishing culture, tradition, and a backstory. Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart sees an African world that largely revolves around the geographical location of Nigeria; this agricultural society serves as the vast foundation for a polytheistic religion and a reverence for the land itself. Not only are the values of the community of Umuofia meaningfully constructed upon this locational guideline, but the very essence of the protagonist, Okonkwo, and his unparalleled mindset, originates from this venerable attitude. In turn, the author himself, Chinua Achebe, brilliantly shares a traditional culture that is inherently dependent on the land itself, and how it inevitably leads to a clash of civilization where things truly “Fall Apart”.
Chinua Achebe attempts, and succeeds, to share a unique African culture that is inevitably and blatantly based on an agricultural society. Within this culture, the great value of yams, palm oil, and the kola nut are demonstrated as forms of wealth. In the first chapter of the book, Okonkwo is described as, “still young[,] but he had won fame as the greatest wrestler in the nine villages. He was a wealthy farmer and had two barns full of yams, and had just married his third wife” (Achebe 3), which shows that his wealth is accompanied by his status as a farmer, and the amount of yams he possesses. Thus, the high social standing of an individual is dictated by the amount of land he possesses, and the fruitfulness of his agricultural labor. Because the weather and climate serves as a key defining factor in one’s economic prosperity, a polytheistic religion revolving around the elements of nature prevails as well. A fear of the gods of nature are instilled within the members of this community, ultimately affecting the very meaning of life: to please the gods for one’s own welfare. This strength of culture and value results in the creation of the protagonist, whose very ambitions would be rendered obsolete and worthless without the underlying culture that is made possible by this land.
From the onset of the novel, Okonkwo establishes himself as a man of uncontested strength. He strives to the fullest to become the very opposite of what his father once was: a man who was a “failure” in Okonkwo’s eyes. What constitutes as “failure”? In the context of this novel, Okonkwo’s father is poor and lacks the wealth that is measured in yams. This very wealth is only made possible by the ability of the land to produce yams. When Unoka, Okonkwo’s father, consulted a priestess back in the day, he mourns of his misery, “I also kill a cock at the shrine of Ifejioku, the god of yams. I clear the bush and set fire to it when it is dry. I sow the yams when the first rain has fallen, and stake them when the young tendrils appear […] when a man is at peace with his gods and his ancestors, his harvest will be good or bad according to the strength of his arm” (Achebe 6). The display of sacrifice towards the god of yams shows the omnipresence of their religion. Moreover, the Umuofian community avoids angering the gods at all costs and makes their fear blatant. When Okonkwo beats his wife during the Week of Peace, he is reprimanded, but not for the assumed reasons of his abuse. Okonkwo is forced to repent, to prevent his wrongdoing in spurring the gods to unleash their wrath on the community as a whole. This demonstrates a seemingly interconnected nature of each and every individual for the welfare of the whole tribe, in efforts to preserve the very essence of the land and the life that reaps benefit and wealth from it.
Thus a clashing of two vastly different cultures leads to the inevitable downfall of Umuofia when the Christian missionaries make their long-lived and vastly detrimental impact on an already thriving society. Without the origin of an agricultural society, the European missionaries do not understand the greatness of a culture that is established upon foreign roots, as demonstrated by an interaction between Reverend Smith and Oberieka. The Christian missionary is unable to understand this polytheistic religion and ways of life; had he been brought up in this physical environment, he would not have disregarded and demeaned the spiritual essence of nature as foolish. Thus it is noted that as Umuofia is located in Nigeria, the missionaries originate from Europe. The outcomes of these contrasting settings are on opposite sides of the spectrum. Achebe’s very intent is founded upon the greatness of a culture that is ultimately destroyed by foreign powers who are unable to initiate any form of cultural diffusion. He details on this potent destruction, and how it destroys Okonkwo’s spirit and character at the end, rendering him hopeless and to his untimely death. This country setting of yams and gods of nature ultimately sets a unique warrior culture that Achebe effectively shares, justly glorifying a unique African community that is faithful at no ends to its very origins.
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