Things Fall Apart By Chinua Achebe Summary and Analysis Part 3: Chapter 20

Summary

During Okonkwo's first year in exile, he already began to plan his grand return to Umuofia. Now he is determined to compensate for the seven years he considers wasted. Not only will he build a bigger compound than before, but he will also build huts for two new wives.

His plans for a triumphant return, however, are momentarily disrupted when Nwoye joins the Christians. At first, his oldest son's action depresses him. But he is confident that his other five sons will not disappoint him. Okonkwo also takes pride in his daughters, especially Ezinma, who has grown into a beautiful young woman. Her periods of illness are almost nonexistent. Many suitors in Mbanta have asked for her hand in marriage, but she has refused them all, knowing that her father wishes her to marry in Umuofia. Moreover, she has encouraged her half-sister Obiageli to do the same.

When Okonkwo returns to his village in Umuofia, he finds it greatly changed in his absence. The Christian church has won many converts, including respected men who have renounced their traditional titles. The white men have established a government court of law in Umuofia, where they try people who break the white men's laws; they have also built a prison, where lawbreakers are sent for punishment. The white men even employ natives as their "court messengers" to do the dirty work of arresting, guarding, and administering punishment to offending citizens.

Okonkwo wonders why his fellow Umuofians do not use violence to rid themselves of the white man's church and oppressive government. His friend Obierika says that they fear a fate like Abame's, the village destroyed by the white intruders. He also tells Okonkwo about a villager who was hanged by the government because of an argument over a piece of land. He points out that any violence will pit clansmen against one another, because many clan members have already joined the church. Obierika reflects on how the white men settled in quietly with their religion and then stayed to govern harshly, without ever learning the language or customs and without listening to reason.

Analysis

Okonkwo's concern about his status when he returns to Umuofia suggests that status and mobility within Umuofian society is largely self-determined: All males except outcasts have opportunities to move upward in the clan through hard work, wise use of resources, and gaining titles. Prominent status is essential to Okonkwo in his drive for manliness. Out of the community for seven years, Okonkwo lost his status among the village elders and the other egwugwu, and he has fallen behind in obtaining titles in the clan. He can compensate by making a show of his larger compound, more barns, and more wives and by starting to initiate his sons (besides Nwoye) into gaining titles — something few men can afford to do. He seems to be suppressing his sorrow over the loss of Nwoye and his disappointment about the loss of community position by reaffirming his beliefs in traditional Igbo ways and taking traditional steps toward recognition.

In light of his near obsession with status and titles, Okonkwo must find it particularly hard to understand how some of the leaders of the community can give up their titles when they became Christians.

In Part Two of the book, the major change introduced by the white man was the Christian church, which not only divided the community, but divided families. In the first chapter of Part Three, the white man's government assumes a central role, not only with its court and its "court messengers" but also with its prison and its executions. These changes are reported by Achebe in an ironic tone, as if the establishment of a government by the white colonialists was the Igbos' first experience with government, as if the Igbo did not have a justice system prior to the arrival of the whites. This tone is especially ironic because, earlier, Achebe takes great pains to illustrate not only the varieties of justice meted out by the Oracle (Okonkwo's banishment) and by the general citizenry (reprimands about violating the Week of Peace and about women not helping in the recovery of a stray cow), but he also illustrates the processes followed and the types of justice meted out by the formal court (Chapter 10). Remember that one of Achebe's goals in writing this novel was to demonstrate that the Igbo had developed a sophisticated society, religion, and justice system long before the Europeans arrived.

Achebe describes a colonial government that subdues the Igbo people without requiring the missionaries to learn their language or try to understand the Igbo traditions and ways. (The first church representative, Mr. Brown, is the exception in being accommodating to Igbo language and customs.)

By recruiting other African natives — the kotmas, or court messengers — to be their agents in the day-to-day enforcement of their authority, the missionaries bring into their use people with skin color and language characteristics much like the local natives — people who seem to be friends of the local natives (though their dialect was apparently different). Ultimately, the court messengers abused their positions by beating prisoners and taking bribes. Achebe is implying that corruption among the Igbo people isn't exclusive to Umuofia; the court messengers are more interested in what they can get out of the situation rather than what they can do to spread Christianity or even to help the Umuofians.

When Okonkwo tells Obierika that his fellow Umuofians should rise up against the British, Obierika wisely understands that it is too late. Many Umuofians have already "joined the ranks of the stranger." Obierika says that the white man "has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart" — the first specific acknowledgment of the book's title, Things Fall Apart.

Glossary

anklet of his titles When a man achieves a title, he wears a special anklet to indicate his title. He may wear more than one anklet to indicate more titles.

sacrament of Holy Communion the most sacred ritual of participating Christians.

court messengers the native Africans hired by the British to carry out their law enforcement activities; also called kotma. Kotma is a Pidgin English word derived from the words court and messenger.

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