Things Fall Apart Summary

The book is a biography of Okonkwo, one of the most respected men in the Umuofia tribe of Ikwo people in Africa. For him things do indeed fall apart. This is a dramatic story that can be compared with Sophocles’ tragedies about pride and fear that gradually ruin the life of a rightful man.

Okonkwo is strong and able man, surrounded by his three wives and ten children. He worked incredibly hard to reach his position of the clan leader, never showing any weakness, but its not only his inner desire to reach success. A deeply rooted fear pushes Okonkwo forward.

His father named Unoka was a kind but weak-willed man. He was mocked by his neighbors for inability to feed his wife and son. Okonkwo and his mother were almost always hungry. Finally Unoka was proclaimed “weaker than a woman” and died in poverty, leaving to his son a huge load of debts, the deep feeling of disgust and the example of who young Okonkwo never wants to be. In desperate attempt to be nothing like Unoka, Okonkwo suppresses all the feelings, because the masculinity of man who shows his feelings may be questioned. He is controlling and cold towards his wives and children, but this doesn’t mean Okonkwo doesn’t love them. He is just afraid to show his affection. The only child he allows himself to openly care for is his little sickly daughter Ezinma. She isn’t supposed to be strong, she is a girl and, moreover, she isn’t able-bodied. So Ezinma becomes something of a living safe place for Okonkwo’s caring side. Also she is brave and persistent despite her fragility, she is the only one to object and discuss the decisions of her father and this doesn’t anger him as always. On the contrary, Okonkwo sees in Ezinma his own traits and sometimes he wishes she was born as a boy and became his heir.

Recently Okonkwo defeated in the competition one of the most famous wrestler nicknamed Amalinze the Cat, for he has never fell on his back before. But Okonkwo made him fall that way exactly and won lots of fame for himself and his village. So when the elders decide to whom they shall give a ritual hostage, he is the first candidate.

The hostage is a little boy named Ikemefuna. He is the son of the offender from the neighboring tribe. Ikemefuna’s father killed an Umuofian woman and, according to the Ikwo laws, he shall give his son to Umuofia tribe until the elders conduct the trial. Ikemefuna is a smart and friendly boy, he quickly befriends all Okonkwo’s family, charming even Okonkwo himself. Ikemefuna is glad to play with his new stepbrother Nwoye and soon refers to Okonkwo as to his second father.

Still, Okonkwo tries to protect his manhood. The more he loves Ikemefuna, the harsher teacher he becomes. He himself is afraid of unknown and overwhelming feelings that fill his heart. So Okonkwo tries to compensate them with cold attitude, even not noticing when he crosses the line of humanity. At the Week of Peace he heavily beats his younger wife. She went to her friends to braid her hair and prepare for celebration but forgot to cook food and clean the house. Another his wife, Ekwefi, who was also beaten and shot, was not guilty at all. She took the leaves of a banana tree without Okonkwo’s permission to wrap the ritual food for the celebration.

The community is shocked by such a retribution for petty misdeeds. Moreover, not only Okonkwo abused his family, he also violated the sacred Week of Peace, dedicated to the gods. For the first time, considering his status and glorious deeds, Okonkwo is told by elders to make some additional sacrifices to clean himself before the gods. But still, though he is formally forgiven, the other people of Umuofia village become cautious of him. They understand that something is wrong with Okonkwo, but none of them has the education to recognize his deep psychological issues or courage to ask the strongest warrior of the tribe directly.

But his deepest fall was Ikemefuna’s murder. After three years of treating him like a son Okonkwo receives a message from the Oracle, sent through the clan elder Ogbuefi Ezeuder. The Oracle demands the hostage to be killed to avenge the death of Umuofian woman. Ogbuefi asks Okonkwo to give Ikemefuna to him and do not participate and even watch the ritual kill, because he understands that it is like watching his own son being murdered. But Okonkwo, obsessed by his manhood and reputation, thinks that Ogbuefi considers him too weak and soft to do the deed. So he volunteers to kill Ikemefuna himself and insists on this until Ogbuefi accepts this decision.

Okonkwo takes his machete and delivers the killing blow himself, as he wanted, despite Ikemefuna crying and asking his “father” to help until the last moment. After realizing what Okonkwo did, Nwoye, his son, distances himself from his father, the rest of the family and the whole village. The boy is deeply traumatized and is unlikely to recover. This deed also leaves a trace on Okonkwo himself. The attraction to his stepson was great but the following depression is much greater that he can ever imagine. No one in the village wants to speak to him about what happened except his old friend Obierika. He is the only one Okonkwo can confess to. The sincere talk eases his burden a bit but the very next night Okonkwo’s wife Ekwefi wakes him up telling that their daughter Ezinma fell ill and the illness seems terminal now. Okonkwo rushes to the forest, gathering the healing herbs and roots in the middle of the night, but they doesn’t help. Ezinma’s condition gets worse with every new day.

Once, when the sacred trial is held, Okonkwo with other clan leaders represents one of the spirits needed to make a decision. Suddenly one of the other leaders, an elderly woman named Chielo, says that the Oracle of the Earth Goddess wants to see Ezinma. Ekwefi doesn’t want to give her daughter away thinking that the Oracle may take Ezinma to punish Okonkwo for Ikemefuna’s death. Okonkwo also tries to protect their daughter, but, despite their protest, Chielo takes Ezinma and guides her to the cave of the Oracle. Ekwefi, whose maternal feelings are much stronger than her fear of her husband and all the gods altogether, secretly follows Chielo to know the decision about her daughter. To her surprise, Okonkwo is also near the entrance to the cave, guided by the same feelings of a caring and worrying parent.

The next day Chielo returns Ezinma and puts the girl to her bed. Ezinma slowly recovers and regains her health.

Soon Ogbuefi dies. His last words said to Okonkwo were warning. Ogbuefi said that Ikemefuna’s murder isn’t forgotten neither by men nor by gods. With a heavy heart, Okonkwo goes to the funeral, but during performing a salute in Ogbuefi’s honor his rifle goes off. The sixteen-year-old son of Ogbuefi dies at once, killed by Okonkwo’s hand, though incidentally.

This is considered a huge crime. The other elders interpret the accident as the Earth Goddess’ wrath and say that Okonkwo and his family shall be exiled for seven years until the goddess forgives him. Okonkwo has to move to the native village of his mother. When he goes away, the people of the village burn his house and kill his animals to clear themselves from any traces of Okonkwo’s disgrace. The small part of his crops is saved by Obierika, but Okonkwo has to start his life anew.

Okonkwo and his family settle down in the village of Mbanta, where they are given a small part of land to work on. He seldom gets some news from his former village through Obierika. His friend visits him to talk and to give him money from selling his crops. Obierika tells that people in the neighboring village saw a white man on the bicycle and the oracles said that white people will destroy all their clans. Frightened, villagers killed the white man but the next day an army of white men came and razed the village in retribution, partly fulfilling the prophecy. Okonkwo says that it was stupid to kill a man without any reason, it shows to the readers that he had softened a bit.

The next time Obierika comes, he tells about white missionaries spreading a strange belief called Christianity. Soon the same missionaries come to Mbanta too, building their church on the cursed land. The Ikwo people believe that the missionaries will die because of it, but the priest answers that his faith will protect them from any curses. When nothing happens, the locals start to believe that Christians possess an extraordinary power and start to convert to Christianity - from women and the weakest (like Okonkwo’s father) to the rest of the village.

Okonkwo’s exile comes to an end, and he moves back to Umuofia. He sees that his village has also changed drastically. Lots of people took the Christian names and converted to their faith, including his own son Nwoye, who abandoned Okonkwo before. Nwoye is now a handsome young man named Isaac who finished a Christian school and teaches other Umuofian children. He seems to finally find inner peace in his work and prayers.

The European laws slowly substitute Ikwo ones. The white people built a court and prison to hold their own trials, they also educate and employ locals. The white government is leaded by Mr. Brown. Mr. Brown is attentive to the native culture, he treats elders with respect, showing that he is ready to learn Ikwo customs and find compromises between them and his own worldview. This way he wins the mutual respect from the elders and both cultures are able to coexist peacefully for some time.
But later Mr. Brown falls ill and has to be transferred back to his homeland. Reverend James Smith substitutes him, but he is absolutely intolerant, zealous and ignorant to the locals’ needs.

The last straw was after one of the priests unmasked an elder during a sacred ritual. It is considered a huge disgrace and offense of the gods. The Umuofians revolt and burn the church to avenge themselves before the face of the gods. For this crime all the six elders including Okonkwo are jailed and the other villagers have to pay a huge fine equal to the church rebuild cost to set them free. The villagers obey, but instead of feeling grateful Okonkwo is furious. He thinks that the Umuofians became voiceless slaves of the white people unable to preserve their own existence. His daughter Ezinma is one of the few people who still supports him and her adoration encourages him to make the next step.

On the next gathering of the tribe, white court members, as always, come to listen. Okonkwo suddenly jumps forward and beheads the leader of the delegation. He turns back to his tribe expecting them to follow him and to throw white people from their land, but no one moves. Okonkwo finally faces the bitter truth: all his past life has fallen apart. He is not a clan leader anymore, his clan has lost their dignity and will to fight. Broken, Okonkwo goes away.

When the police rushes to his house to take the murderer to the prison, they see that there is no more need to do that. Okonkwo hanged himself. The bitter irony is that suicide is considered a huge sin amongst both Christians and Ikwo people, so, no matter how hard he tried, Okonkwo still dies disgraced.