Set around the turn of the century, the novel focuses first on the hero of the book, Okonkwo, and on his late father, Unoka. Okonkwo is a respected leader within the Igbo (formerly spelled Ibo) community of Umuofia in eastern Nigeria. About twenty years ago, Okonkwo distinguished himself and brought honor to his village when he wrestled and threw to the ground Amalinze the Cat, a man who had not been defeated for seven years. Since then, Okonkwo's reputation as a wrestler has grown throughout the nine villages of Umuofia. He is known to be quickly angered, especially when dealing with unsuccessful men like his father, who died ten years ago deeply in debt.
Because of Unoka's laziness and wastefulness, the community had considered him a failure and laughingstock; he was a continual source of deep shame to Okonkwo. Even though he had a family to care for, Unoka frequently borrowed money and then squandered it on palm-wine and merrymaking with his neighbors, thus neglecting his family who barely had enough to eat.
The story is told about the day, years ago, when Unoka was visited by Okoye, a successful neighbor. After the traditional ceremonial courtesies and small talk, Okoye asked Unoka for the two hundred cowries that Unoka had borrowed two years earlier. Okoye needed the money for the ceremony in which he would purchase the third highest title of honor.
Unoka burst into laughter and pointed to the wall on which he recorded his debts. He told Okoye that tradition required him to repay his largest debts before repaying small ones like his debt to Okoye. Okoye left without his money.
Despite his father's shameful reputation, Okonkwo is now highly respected in Umuofia, which honors individual achievement rather than family heritage. Still a young man in his thirties, Okonkwo has become a wealthy farmer of yams — a sacred crop — and supports three wives, a significant indicator of wealth and "manliness." Furthermore, he is known for his incredible prowess in two intertribal wars, and he holds two honorific titles, though his father died with none.
Because Okonkwo is honored as one of the greatest men in his community, he will be asked to look after a young man who will be given as a peace offering to Umuofia by the neighboring village of Mbaino, which hopes to avoid war with Umuofia.
Although not indicated in this chapter, the events of Things Fall Apart take place in the late 1800s and early 1900s, just before and during the early days of the British Empire's expansion in Nigeria. The novel depicts details about life in an African culture much different from Western culture. In this chapter, Achebe reveals the following aspects of Igbo culture:
- Legends and traditions (the fight with a spirit of the wild by the founder of their village)
- Symbols of honor (titles)
- Indicators of wealth (yams, cowries)
- Marriage customs (more than one wife)
- The reckoning of time (markets, a week of four days)
- Social rituals (kola nuts, alligator pepper, chalk, small talk, and proverbs)
- Music, entertainment, food, and drink
In his goal to demonstrate the complexity and sophistication of Igbo society, Achebe gradually introduces these details when they are relevant to the story.
Chapter 1 describes Okonkwo's principal accomplishments that establish his important position in Igbo society. These details alone provide insight into Okonkwo's character and motivation. Driving himself toward tribal success and recognition, he is trying to bury the unending shame that he feels regarding the faults and failures of his late father, Unoka. Essentially, Okonkwo exhibits qualities of manhood in Igbo society.
Familiar with Western literature and its traditional forms, Achebe structures Things Fall Apart in the tradition of a Greek tragedy, with the story centered around Okonkwo, the tragic hero. Aristotle defined the tragic hero as a character who is superior and noble, one who demonstrates great courage and perseverance but is undone because of a tragic personal flaw in his character.
In this first chapter, Achebe sets up Okonkwo as a man much respected for his considerable achievements and noble virtues — key qualities of a tragic hero. Okonkwo's tragic flaw is his obsession with manliness; his fear of looking weak like his father drives him to commit irrational acts of violence that undermine his nobleness. In the chapters ahead, the reader should note the qualities and actions that begin to reveal the tragic flaw in Okonkwo's otherwise admirable actions, words, ideas, and relationships with others.
At the end of Chapter 1, Achebe foreshadows the presence of Ikemefuna in Okonkwo's household and also the teenage boy's ultimate fate by referring to him as a "doomed" and "ill-fated lad."
One of the most significant social markers of Igbo society is introduced in this chapter — its unique system of honorific titles. Throughout the book, titles are reference points by which members of Igbo society frequently compare themselves with one another (especially Okonkwo). These titles are not conferred by higher authorities, but they are acquired by the individual who can afford to pay for them. As a man accumulates wealth, he may gain additional recognition and prestige by "taking a title." He may also purchase titles for male members of his family (this aspect is revealed later). In the process of taking a title, the man pays significant initiation fees to the men who already hold the title.
A Umuofian man can take as many as four titles, each apparently more expensive than its predecessor. A man with sufficient money to pay the fee begins with the first level — the most common title — but many men cannot go beyond the first title. Each title taken may be shown by physical signs, such as an anklet or marks on the feet or face, so others can determine who qualifies for certain titles.
The initiation fees are so large that some writers have referred to the system as a means for "redistributing wealth." Some Native American tribes of the Pacific Northwest observe their own version of redistributing wealth through a potlatch ceremony at which the guests receive gifts from the person gaining the honor as a show of wealth for others to exceed.
gyre a circular or spiral motion; a revolution. The word appears in the book's opening quotation from a W.B. Yeats poem, "The Second Coming."
Okonkwo The name implies male pride and stubbornness.
Umuofia The community name, which means children of the forest and a land undisturbed by European influences.
harmattan a dry, dusty wind that blows from the Sahara in northern Africa toward the Atlantic, especially from November to March.
Unoka Okonkwo's father's name; its translation, home is supreme, implies a tendency to stay home and loaf instead of achieve fame and heroism.
cowries shells of the cowrie, a kind of mollusk related to snails and found in warm seas; especially the shells of the money cowrie, formerly used as currency in parts of Africa and southern Asia.
egwugwu leaders of the clan who wear masks during certain rituals and speak on behalf of the spirits; the term can be either singular or plural.
markets Igbo weeks are four days long, and the market day is on the first of day each week; therefore, three or four markets is a period of twelve to sixteen days.
kites birds of prey with long, pointed wings and, usually, a forked tail; they prey especially on insects, reptiles, and small mammals.
Okoye an everyman name comparable to John Doe in English. Okoye represents all the people to whom Unoka owes money.
kola nut the seed of the cola, an African tree. The seed contains caffeine and yields an extract; it represents vitality and is used as a courteous, welcoming snack, often with alligator pepper.
alligator pepper a small brown fruit of an African shrub, whose hot seeds are like black pepper; also called offe. The seeds may be ground and blended with kola nut in the ritual welcome of visitors.
chalk a material that represents peace. The Umuofians use chalk to signify personal honors and status by marking the floor and the toe or face, according to the level of honorific title they have taken. For example, Okoye marks his toe to indicate his first title.
Mbaino This community name means four settlements.
ekwe a drum.
udu a clay pot.
ogene a gong.
Ibo a member of a people of southeastern Nigeria; known for their art and their skills as traders. Today, the word is spelled Igbo (the g is not pronounced).
Idemili title This title, named after the river god Idemili, is the third-level title of honor in Umuofia.