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Things Fall Apart: Analysis - Chapters 20 - 21

Okonkwo’s status as a warrior and farmer and his clan’s perception of him have changed since his exile. His increasing loss of power and prestige brings him great anxiety. Any remaining doubt that Okonkwo is slightly crazy is quelled when we learn that he has been fantasizing about, and seriously planning for, his triumphant return to his village since his departure. Okonkwo has great expectations for himself—in Chapter 20 we are told that, “he saw himself taking the highest title of the land.”

Although Okonkwo still wishes that Ezinma were a boy, she remains a comfort to him throughout his troubles. Ironically, she best understands the dilemma of compromised manhood that her father faces. She sees how important her marriage is to Okonkwo’s position in the community, and she has considerable influence over her sister, who quickly agrees to postpone her marriage as well. After Nwoye’s departure, Okonkwo shows no sign of changing his practice of lecturing his sons about the rash and violent nature of true masculinity, showing his continued refusal to accept the fact that aggressiveness and pensiveness are not gender-defined, mutually exclusive traits.

Already having dealt with the missionaries in Mbanta, Okonkwo is now forced to deal with them in his own village. However, Mr. Brown, their leader, is far more enlightened than the average white colonist. Although he doesn’t really understand Igbo beliefs, he is capable of respecting them, and he does not want his flock to antagonize the clan. In a rare occurrence of cross-cultural understanding, he seems to share the clan’s value of peaceful, harmonious relations, and he debates religion with Akunna without insults or violence. His influence is largely benevolent, and Achebe uses Mr. Brown as a foil for the missionary who eventually takes his place, the more radical Reverend Smith.

Things Fall Apart is not one-sided in its portrayal of colonialism. It presents the economic benefits of cross-cultural contact and reveals the villagers’ delight in the hospital’s treatment of illnesses. The sympathetic Mr. Brown urges the Igbo to send their children to school because he knows that the colonial government will rob the Igbo of self-government if they do not know the language. In essence, he urges the Igbo to adapt so that they won’t lose all autonomy. Nevertheless, it is difficult to view colonialism in a tremendously positive light: suddenly the Igbo must relate to the colonial government on European terms. The story of Abame and the discussion of the new judicial system show how different the European frame of reference is from that of the egwugwu. The colonial government punishes individuals according to European cultural and religious values. For example, without first making an effort to understand the cultural and religious tradition behind the practice, the government pronounces the abandonment of newborn twins a punishable crime.

At the end of Chapter 20, Obierika points out that there is no way that the white man will be able to understand Umuofia’s customs without understanding its language. This idea mirrors one of Achebe’s purposes in writing Things Fall Apart: the book serves not only to remind the West that Africa has language and culture but also to provide an understanding of Igbo culture through language. Achebe shows us the extent to which cultural and linguistic structures and practices are intertwined, and he is able to re-create in English the cadences, images, and rhythms of the speech of the Igbo people. By the time things begin to “fall apart,” it becomes clear that what the colonialists have unraveled is the complex Igbo culture.
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