Things Fall Apart is Chinua Achebe’s first novel and was published in 1958, a time often called the Nigerian Renaissance because in that period a large number of very strong Nigerian writers began to create a powerful new literature that drew on the traditional oral literature, European literature, and the changing times in Nigeria and in Africa at large. Writers as varied as Ben Okri and Wole Soyinka developed in the context of the ideas and energy of the Nigerian Renaissance, but Achebe is considered one of the earliest and best novelists to have come out of modern Nigeria, in fact one of the top English-speaking novelists of his time anywhere.
In 1958 much of Africa was still under the colonialist yoke, although a few countries (most notably Ghana) had already achieved independence. Set in a time of great change for Africans, Achebe’s novels illuminate two painful features of modern African life: the humiliations visited on Africans by colonialism, and the corruption and inefficiency of what replaced colonial rule. Things Fall Apart in particular focuses on the early experience of colonialism as it occurred in Nigeria in the late 1800’s, from the first days of contact with the British to widespread British administration.
Achebe is interested in showing Ibo society in the period of transition when rooted, traditional values are put in conflict with an alien and more powerful culture that will tear them apart. Achebe paints a vivid picture of Ibo society both before and after the arrival of white men, and avoids the temptation to idealize either culture. In this context, he believes that the novelist must have a social commitment: “The writer cannot be excused from the task of re-education and regeneration that must be done.I for one would not wish to be excused. I would be quite satisfied if my novels (especially the ones I set in the past) did no more than just teach my readers [Africans] that their past-with all its imperfections-was not one long night of savagery from which the Europeans acting on God’s behalf delivered them.”
He also fiercely resents the stereotype of Africa as an undifferentiated “primitive” land, the “heart of darkness,” as Conrad calls it. Throughout the novel he shows how African cultures vary among themselves and how they change over time. Look for instances of these variations as you read.
The language of the novel is simple but dignified. When the characters speak, they use an elevated diction which is meant to convey the sense of Ibo speech. This choice of language was a brilliant and innovative stroke, given that most earlier writers had relegated African characters to pidgin or inarticulate gibberish. One has the sense of listening to another tongue, one with a rich and valuable tradition.
In this edition, a glossary of Ibo words and phrases is printed at the end of the book. Be sure to consult it whenever you encounter a new Ibo word or phrase.