The Use of Proverbs in Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

About this sample

About this sample


Words: 986 |

Pages: 3|

5 min read

Published: Jul 15, 2020

Words: 986|Pages: 3|5 min read

Published: Jul 15, 2020

Table of contents

  1. Proverbs as Carriers of Cultural Values
  2. Proverbs and Character Development
  3. Proverbs and Narrative Structure
  4. Conclusion
  5. References

Proverbs are an integral part of human communication and culture, serving as concise and insightful expressions of wisdom, ethics, and traditional knowledge. They have been used across various societies to convey complex ideas in a succinct manner, and literature has often incorporated them to enrich storytelling and provide deeper insights into characters and themes. One exemplary work that extensively employs proverbs is "Things Fall Apart" by Chinua Achebe. This novel, set in pre-colonial Nigeria, showcases the significance of proverbs in Igbo culture and explores how they shape the narrative, characters, and themes. In this essay, we will delve into the use of proverbs in "Things Fall Apart," examining their roles in conveying cultural values, character development, and the overall narrative structure.

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Proverbs as Carriers of Cultural Values

Proverbs in "Things Fall Apart" serve as essential carriers of Igbo cultural values, providing readers with a window into the beliefs, norms, and traditions of the society. Chinua Achebe strategically embeds these proverbs in the narrative to illustrate the wisdom and customs of the Igbo people. One of the most prominent proverbs in the novel is "proverbs are the palm oil with which words are eaten," emphasizing the centrality of proverbs in communication within the Igbo community. These succinct expressions encapsulate collective wisdom, reflecting the importance of oral tradition in preserving cultural heritage.

Moreover, proverbs highlight the significance of certain virtues in Igbo culture. For instance, the proverb "The lizard that jumped from the high iroko tree to the ground said he would praise himself if no one else did" underscores the value of self-confidence and self-reliance. Through such proverbs, Achebe subtly conveys the cultural emphasis on individual agency and self-esteem within the Igbo society.

Furthermore, proverbs act as moral compasses, guiding characters and readers alike. When Okonkwo, the novel's protagonist, is advised that "a toad does not run in the daytime for nothing," it foreshadows his tragic downfall due to his impulsive actions and fear-driven decisions. This proverb serves as a warning against recklessness and impulsivity, reflecting the moral framework of Igbo society. It highlights the idea that one's actions have consequences and should be guided by wisdom and prudence.

Proverbs and Character Development

In "Things Fall Apart," proverbs play a pivotal role in shaping the characters' personalities and actions. They serve as mirrors that reflect the characters' adherence to or deviation from cultural norms. Achebe employs proverbs to reveal the inner thoughts and motivations of the characters, shedding light on their complexities.

Take, for example, Okonkwo, whose character is deeply intertwined with proverbs. The proverb "A man who pays respect to the great paves the way for his own greatness" demonstrates Okonkwo's unrelenting pursuit of greatness and his desire to distance himself from his father's perceived weaknesses. This proverb encapsulates Okonkwo's character arc, revealing his unwavering commitment to establishing himself as a respected and influential figure in his society.

Conversely, the character of Nwoye undergoes a transformation partly influenced by proverbs. Initially, Nwoye is viewed as weak and effeminate by his father Okonkwo, who berates him for not meeting his expectations of masculinity. However, as Nwoye becomes exposed to proverbs that promote values of empathy, understanding, and acceptance, such as "The lizard that jumped from the high iroko tree to the ground said he would praise himself if no one else did," he starts to question the rigid gender roles and toxic masculinity perpetuated in his society. Eventually, Nwoye embraces a more compassionate and open-minded outlook, rejecting the strict values his father embodies.

Proverbs and Narrative Structure

The use of proverbs in "Things Fall Apart" also contributes significantly to the novel's narrative structure. Achebe employs proverbs as a means of foreshadowing, symbolism, and thematic development, weaving them seamlessly into the fabric of the story.

Proverbs, as devices of foreshadowing, provide subtle hints about the unfolding events in the novel. The proverb "The sun will shine on those who stand before it shines on those who kneel under them" foreshadows the inevitable clash between the Igbo culture and the encroaching European colonialism. It suggests that those who stand tall and resist change will eventually prevail, while those who submit passively to the colonialists will suffer.

Furthermore, proverbs serve as powerful symbols throughout the narrative. The proverb "When mother-cow is chewing grass, its young ones watch its mouth" symbolizes the generational transfer of wisdom and knowledge. This symbolism becomes particularly poignant as the novel explores the erosion of traditional values and the loss of intergenerational wisdom due to the disruptions caused by colonialism.

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In "Things Fall Apart," Chinua Achebe masterfully employs proverbs as multifaceted tools that enhance the narrative, convey cultural values, and shape character development. Through these concise expressions of wisdom, readers gain insight into the rich tapestry of Igbo culture, witness the transformation of characters, and grasp the thematic depth of the novel. Proverbs not only serve as linguistic gems but also as vehicles for understanding the intricate layers of human experience, tradition, and change. "Things Fall Apart" stands as a testament to the enduring power of proverbs in literature, showcasing how these age-old aphorisms can continue to illuminate the complexities of our world. Chinua Achebe's artful incorporation of proverbs in his novel serves as a reminder that the wisdom of the past remains relevant, even in the face of profound societal transformations.


  1. Achebe, C. (1958). Things Fall Apart. William Heinemann.
  2. Ezenwa-Ohaeto, J. (1997). Chinua Achebe: A Biography. Indiana University Press.
  3. Oyinloye, O. O. (2012). Proverbs in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart: A Semiotic Approach. European Scientific Journal, 8(7), 188-204.
  4. Ezeani, E. C. (1987). The use of proverbs in Chinua Achebe's "Things Fall Apart": A semantic and literary appraisal. Proverbium, 4, 129-155.
  5. Irele, A. (1986). The African Experience in Literature and Ideology. Indiana University Press.
  6. Ngara, E. M. (2017). A Stylistic Analysis of Achebe's "Things Fall Apart" and Arrow of God. Journal of Literature and Art Studies, 7(2), 162-170.
  7. Okpewho, I. (1992). Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart: A Classic Study in Colonial Diplomatic Tactlessness. Research in African Literatures, 23(3), 361-372.
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