Things Fall Apart has been a great text for my 8th graders, but it’s not without some challenges. It’s long, especially in Part 1, and many of the chapters set a scene rather than advance the plot. Two, Achebe develops few characters besides Nwoye, Ikemefuna, Enzima/Ekwefi, Obierka and Oknowko. And, even as someone who has read the book numerous times, I find myself struggling to track the characters.
The text does, though, have some clear strengths.
Things Fall Apart is relatively accessible for students in terms of plot, language and themes. Achebe wrote it as a political act, to give a voice to a culture he felt was wrongly and mistakenly portrayed. Students also have the chance to engage with a protagonist who’s unsympathetic to contemporary readers, but who nonetheless earns our sympathy in the novel’s final chapter.
As English teachers, we tend to grant American and European literature more space than literature from other countries. We want students to read all types of books about a variety of times and places. Things Fall Apart fits the bill well.
Finally, because it’s accessible and, at times, slow, there is ample class time to write and strengthen specific writing skills. Things Fall Apart, then, becomes a perfect first-semester text.
Focus points. When I teach the novel, I often focus on several different areas:
How Achebe actively challenges European views of Africa
You cannot teach Things Fall Apart without establishing the context. Students must have this base so they can better understand Achebe’s intents. See Document Search below.
Recurring question: What does this culture value and how do we know?
Achebe clearly establishes that this fictional village was not a barren, savage landscape. A vibrant culture exists in the novel, with religion, ritual, medicine and systems of justice. Students notice the culture’s clear values, and we often transition into interesting conversations about what our culture(s) value(s).
The role of masculinity, violence and domination
Umofian culture, and Okonkwo especially, value violence, domination and control. Achebe immediately establishes that Okonkwo is a wrestling champion, a highly metaphorical detail, who lives his life always wanting to dominate, to control, and he achieves that control by violence. Whether it’s the Christian missionaries, Nwoye or his wives and children, Okonkwo wants to dominate others. For Okonkwo, violence is always the answer, and when Umofia doesn’t follow his lead, he knows he longer has a space in this new world.
Also, students pick up on the stark gender disparaties in Umofian culture. We discuss the toxic masculinity of their culture and what happens to those who do not fit inside the narrow box of what constitute Umofian masuculity. The novel’s version of masculinity leaves little room for tender emotion. Women and children are property and signs of power, rather than human beings. I especially like how we discuss the pressures men face. Adolescent girls are skilled in discussing gender issues regarding women, but we often do not offer space for adolescent boys to address what culture sets as the masculine standard and its negative ramifications.
Some students criticize Achebe the writer for narrative descriptions of women as “ripe” and songs and stories with shades of rape metaphor without explicit commentary or critique.
How we tend to Otherize those we do not understand
In Part 2, both the Ibo and the Europeans discount the other. They repeatedly talk at each other, rather than to each other. We spend time discussing why religion can amplify how we Otherize people.
The lack of clear heroes and villians
Okonkwo is at times an unsympathetic character, as he is violent to those he purportedly loves. At the same time, though, he is strong physically and emotionally. We feel the shock of the final scene when Okonkwo, the formerly great man, is hanging. Okonkwo’s suicide signals his utter and total defeat. Furthermore, the missionaries are not entirely evil. Although their arrival sounds the death knell for the Ibo culture, they also accept the outcasts, “softer” men like Nwoye and stop the abandonment of twins. As readers, we are sympathetic to Nwoye (said to be based on Achebe’s grandfather) and Achebe writes his conversion to Christianity as poetic.
Specific activites you can use
15-20 minutes. Place four large sheets of paper on the wall (one per question) and have students discuss the following questions through writing: What does our culture value and how do you know? What do you wish our culture valued and what exactly would that look like? Why do different cultures have religion? Does our culture value religion and how do you know?
Document search (establishing the European view of Africa)
15-20 minutes. Place the following documents on a large table in the center of the classroom. (Alternately, have students explore the documents in small groups). Tell them that they will need to explore the documents like detectives. Take notes for the discussion we will have after 15 minutes based on the following question: “What’s the overall picture of European thinking towards Africa that these documents present? What specifically stands out?”
- Map of Africa: 1880 – 1913
- Map of Africa – religion, 1913
- Political cartoon, 1892
- Excerpt of speech by John Ruskin
- Excerpts from Heart of Darkness
5-10 minutes. Define epigraph. Have a student read the poem aloud. Define words students might not know. Ask: “What’s the feeling that comes from this epigraph? What are the ideas Achebe is starting the novel with?” I do not read the entire poem with the class, though I do pose this question: “Why is it interesting that Achebe chooses to start with an Irish poet who is very much a fixture of the literary canon?” I do not answer this question, but I have students write down the following question somewhere, ideally in their book: “Why does Achebe begin the novel with this epigraph?” We currently leave this question unanswered, but students often return to it during our final Socratic Circle.
I often rely on discussions (small group, partner, whole class) and think-and-write activities. I have included some of the questions I ask below. I also devote three separate days to in-class writing assignments.
Part 3 final Socratic Seminar
Final Socratic Circle: The fall of Okonkwo
Mastering the single argumentative paragraph (post to follow)
Great questions to ask in class
Part 1: Establishing the culture
Why is it significant that Okonkwo is a wrestling champion? What does this reveal about what the culture values?
What does this culture value and how do you know?
Why does Okonkwo kill Ikemefuna and what does it reveal about his culture’s values?
What is the role of masculinity in this culture?
Okonkwo is clearly a flawed character. What are his strengths? His weaknesses? Do you like him?
Why does Achebe end Part 1 as he does? What is trying to emphasize?
Why does Achebe use the Ibo words? What is he trying to accomplish?
Part 2: What happens when cultures clash?
Why does Achebe end Part 2 as he does? What is he trying to emphasize?
How do characters react to outsiders. How do they Otherize them?
Why do characters see others’ religion as foolish? Is this a human tendency?
How do we see character development of both Nwoye and Oknokwo?
Close read the final page of Part 2. How do we see the value the Ibo people place on the clan?
Part 3: The new world that has no space for Okonkwo
See Socratic Circle document