Things Fall Apart: Summary and Analysis of Chapters 1-5

Things Fall Apart: Chapter 1 Summary

Okonkwo, the greatest warrior of a Nigerian tribe, the Umuofia clan, lives in the little village called Iguedo. He is the most respected man in Iguedo: when he was a young man, he beat Amalinze the Cat, the undefeated warrior, in a wrestling match. Okonkwo wants to ignore his father, Unoka’s memory: he was an idle and shy flute player who hated everything what is important to Okonkwo: fighting, war, honor, manliness, and family. But it’s not easy to forget about his father because Okonkwo’s oldest son, Nwoye, is very similar to Unoka which makes Okonkwo angry and brutal towards him: he often beats up and nags at his 12-year-old son in order to change his “feminine” attitude.

Analysis

Chapter 1 gives us detailed descriptions of Igbo traditions, customs, and beliefs. Memory is an important theme; here, this study guide uses memory as a broad term covering all documentary-style descriptions of Igbo life.

Digression is one of Achebe’s most important tools. He takes any opportunity he can to tell us about a past incident which is only indirectly connected to his central story. These digressions allow him to give life to his portrait of tribal life.

Ambition and greatness are two closely connected themes. Okonkwo is determined to be the opposite of his father. He has already taken two titles (honorary titles that give a man status in the tribe) and he is quite rich. Success and honor are very important to Okonkwo. He has worked his whole life to win the respect of his people. His work ethic and his ambition also give rise to his faults: he is a harsh man, quick to anger and without humility.

Things Fall Apart: Chapter 2 Summary

The war threatens to break out between Umuofia and Mbaino, a neighboring village, because of an unsolved murder. In order to avoid the destruction, Umuofia sends Okonkwo, since Okonkwo has a great reputation everywhere, to Mbaino to offer an ultimatum: give Umuofia a virgin and a young boy, or go to war. Mbaino readily consents, not wanting to battle against the superior might of Umuofia.

Analysis

Achebe gives us a condensed portrait of the social organization of the Igbo, on several levels. We see that the town is not ruled by a chief, but by a general assembly of all the men. In effect, the Igbo have a primitive democracy. We learn that yams are a staple, and a large store of yams indicates prosperity. We also learn that Umuofia prizes justice, and does not wage wars of conquest. There is also a high level of social mobility. Note that while Unoka was a failure, Okonkwo has risen to become a great man among his people.

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Okonkwo fears failure. The theme of ambition has its converse, and it is Okonkwo’s fear of failure that makes him a harsh man. He is strong, but he fails to see that his wives and children are not as physically strong as he. Yet he drives them to work as hard as he does. All of his wives and children fear him. Okonkwo tries to help his son, Nwoye, by being doubly harsh on him. But this approach is turning Nwoye into a sad and resentful youth.

Things Fall Apart: Chapter 3 Summary

Okonkwo is not just a great warrior but a successful farmer as well: he grows yam, the king crop. Unlike his father, he is a wealthy man in the village, owning an obi (house), a shrine, a barn, and three huts, one for each of his wives. Okonkwo believes only in hard work and the display of masculinity through anger and aggression, that’s why he despises his father who was never be able to succeed because of his laziness and shyness for blood.

Analysis

Okonkwo has overcome incredible distinction. His father’s pathetic end and death tainted him with shame, and left him without inheritance. His rise to social power and wealth has been a triumph of stubbornness and will. Sharecropping is a difficult way to begin; moreover, the first year Okonkwo farmerd and it  was a terrible harvest year. But Okonkwo was young and strong, and he was able to survive. The experience has been essential to the formation of his character. Central to Okonkwo’s beliefs is not only a work ethic but a faith in the ability of the will to overcome adversity. He is confident that he can master his environment; he rules as a man, and he is fiercely proud of his people. Understanding these beliefs is key to understanding the tragedy that strikes Okonkwo later, after the coming of the white man.

Things Fall Apart: Chapter 4 Summary

Ikemefuna, who becomes a very popular boy in the family, starts calling Okonkwo “father”. Although Okonkwo likes him, he doesn’t want to show his feelings since he hates sentimentality, because he believes that sentimentality is weak.

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On the Week of Peace, Okonkwo breaks the “law” when he beats one of his wives, Ojiugo, because she was too negligent. He has to sacrifice two animals and pay fine (they use shells as currency) based on the decision of the priest. This is the first case when the great warrior sins.

Analysis

Maculinity is one of Okonkwo’s obsessions. He sees any frail emotion as feminine and therefore weak. His culture is as gentle as any other, but in his need to be strong Okonkwo carries the preoccupation with manliness to an extreme. He has not learned restraint. His beating of Ojiugo is the first concrete incident in the book during which we watch Okonkwo lose control. Although he begins the beating having forgotten that it is the Week of Peace, when reminded he does not stop. He is not a man to do anything half-way, even if he knows there are consequences. Later, this hubris destroys him. His neighbors notice his pride. Even when Okonkwo feels penitent, he takes great pains to hide it. This drive and fierce pride have made him a great man, but they are also the source of all of his faults.

In his sincere desire to see his son Nwoye become great, he has made the boy extremely unhappy. Okonkwo is not exactly a typical Igbo male: though Achebe sets up Okonkwo’s fall as parallel to the fall of his people, he also shows us that Okonkwo is an extraordinary man among the Igbo, in ways both good and bad. In other men of the village, we see restraint and humility. We see in Ikemefuna a role model that Nwoye has lacked. Fearful of his brutal father, Nwoye now has a kind older brother to look up to. We also see that Nwoye is a thoughtful boy: his responses to Ikemefuna’s folktales are imaginative and beautiful.

Things Fall Apart: Chapter 5 Summary

Since Okonkwo is not involved in the Feast of the New Yam, because he is not a woman, he becomes full of pilled up anger from unemployment. Finally, he finds an excuse to beat his second wife Ekwefi. When he finishes, he decides to go hunting. Ekwefi, still shaken from the beating, murmurs about a gun that never shot. Angry again, Okonkwo loses his head and he tries to shoot Ekwefi – without success.

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Later that day, Ekwefi and her daughter, Ezinma, begin to cook dinner with the other wives. Ezinma asks many questions and helps her mother and Nwoye’s mother. When dinner is done, the daughters present their mother’s food, one at a time, to Okonkwo. As Ezinma gives him her dish, she asks about the wrestling tournament and offers to carry Okonkwo’s chair. Okonkwo replies that that is a boy’s job, though inside he is very proud of her. Not wanting to seem too affectionate toward Ezinma, he criticizes her.

Analysis

Chapter 5 magnifies the portrait of Okonkwo’s family life. His three wives live together peacefully, and seem to have great affection for one another. Ezinma is well-beloved, not only by Ekwefi and Okonkwo, but by the other wives as well. The children live together as brothers and sisters. Ikemefuna has been fully absorbed into the family.

But Okonkwo rules with fear. His anger over the banana tree is completely unfounded; he uses it as an excuse to beat someone. He is madly self-absorbed, and does not see fit to learn constraint for the sake of his family.

Igbo society is patriarchal, but this chapter focuses on female characters. Ekwefi is far from timid: fresh from a beating, she makes fun of her husband. We also meet her daughter Ezinma, one of book’s most likable characters. Okonkwo’s treatment of her humanizes him, balancing his harsh treatment of Nwoye. One of the reasons for his gentleness with Ezinma is her gender: as a girl, the expectations on her are different. Okonkwo often wishes that she were a boy, but the wish seems benign next to his merciless treatment of Nwoye. We see that Okonkwo is at least capable of tenderness. Because he does not have the same terrible expectations of a girl as he does of his son, he can treat her with at least a little gentleness.

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