1. Theme of Gender
Much of the traditional Igbo life presented in this novel revolves around structured gender roles. Essentially all of Igbo life is gendered, from the crops that men and women grow, to characterization of crimes. In Igbo culture, women are the weaker sex, but are also endowed with qualities that make them worthy of worship, like the ability to bear children. The dominant role for women is: first, to make a pure bride for an honorable man, second, to be a submissive wife, and third, to bear many children. The ideal man provides for his family materially and has prowess on the battlefield. The protagonist in the novel is extremely concerned with being hyper-masculine and devalues everything feminine, leaving him rather unbalanced. Much of the gender theme in the book centers around the idea of balance between masculine and feminine forces – body and mind/soul, emotionality and rationality, mother and father. If one is in imbalance, it makes the whole system haywire.
2. Theme of Family
For the Igbo, there are a few key ideas that form the basis of an ideal family: mutual respect for each other, a reverence for all past fathers, and unity. The father is not only the provider for the family, but defender of its honor and teacher of his sons. The mother’s main duty is to add to the family line by bearing healthy children and also to please her husband. Children are the inheritors of the future and are raised to continue the values of the older generation. This family unit is the most fundamental unit of society and its structure can be expanded to fit a whole community or even a pantheon of gods.
3. Theme of Respect and Reputation
Reputation is extremely important to the men in the novel. Personal reputation is publicly denoted by the ankle bracelets men wear, which signify the number of “titles” they have earned. Reputation is based on merit – men gain reputation through bravery in battle, skill at wrestling, and hard work as seen through the size of their yam harvest. Reputation earns men positions of power and influence in the community as well as numerous wives. Okonkwo, the novel’s protagonist, is extremely concerned with reputation because he grew up with a father who was shameful and lazy. Okonkwo overcompensates by working tirelessly on his farm and taking every opportunity available to prove his bravery and strength.
4. Theme of Fear
Many of the characters suffer from fear of some sort. Okonkwo fears becoming like his lazy, shameful father, Ekwefi fears losing her daughter, and Nwoye fears his father’s wrath. While most characters fear events that are outside of their control, Okonkwo is consumed by a terrible internal worry about himself and his identity. Rather than mastering his fear, he allows it to dominate him and drive his actions. Fear leads him to lash out in some pretty nasty ways: beating his wives, abusing and alienating his oldest son, partaking in the murder of his adoptive son, etc. Overall, fear in this novel leads characters to behave in negative ways that can bring the wrath of the gods, guilt, and the community disapproval upon them.
5. Theme of Religion
The Igbo gods are mostly manifestations of nature and its elements, which makes sense because they are an agricultural society that depends on the regularity of seasons and natural phenomena to survive. They worship the goddess of the earth and are always careful to avoid committing sins against her for fear of vengeance that might wipe out an entire generation. The Igbo ancestors also take on a divine nature to some extent. Family plays such a central role in Igbo life that the spirits of their ancestors are consulted for almost every decision and even serve as judges in legal trials (in the form of masked elders). The Igbo emphasis on numerous gods associated with nature and also on ancestors and somewhat divine contrasts sharply with the single God of Christianity which seems far less directly relevant to the Igbo lifestyle.
6. Theme of Sin
In Things Fall Apart, sin is defined as a crime against the gods. Such transgressions occur when a member of society violates the most intimate bonds of family, especially with regards to one’s children or somehow insults an ancestral spirit. These sins call for quick and severe punishment, often including animal sacrifices, a heavy fine, various symbolic gestures of atonement, exile from one’s fatherland, or even death. Only when such payment is given can justice be served. If punishment is not doled out, not only is the sinner subject to divine wrath, but the entire community suffers.
7. Theme of Traditions and Customs
Igbo lifestyle is highly stylized, from its ritual speech to the actions performed for certain ceremonies. Most of these formalized interactions occur in an attempt to show respect to some external being – another man, an ancestral spirit, or a god. Respect and knowledge of one’s role in society is very important in determining such customs. Another institution that rituals address and honor is the family unit. Stylized language, in particular, seeks to hold the family together by means of promises.
8. Theme of Man and the Natural World
As an agricultural society, the survival of the Umuofia depends on the earth and its predictable cycle of seasons. Thus we see frequent worship of the earth and her bounty, especially at the new year and during harvest season. The Igbo also reap the earth’s wealth in rather economical and effective ways – tapping trees for palm-wine, capitalizing off of locust plagues, and making medicine with herbs. Human beings are implicitly viewed as the children of the earth, though the conduct of the white men throws doubt on that assumption. In addition to being generous, the earth can also be deadly and is ruthless and not provide food and resources if offended in some way by human actions.
9. Theme of Fate and Free Will
Social rank and relative wealth play great roles in determining a person’s destiny in Umuofia society. But sometimes a man with sheer force of will can change his stars through hard work and a smattering of luck. One of the main conflicts in Things Fall Apart is the clash between Okonkwo’s determination to succeed and fate – which seems to have less appetizing things in mind. However, Okonkwo’s will does play a major factor in determining his future; he chooses to kill Ikemefuna with his own hands, he chooses to kill a government official, and in the end, he chooses to take his own life. Whether or not negative events in his life are tied to these three crimes or if they are just the result of chance or fate is debatable.
10. Theme of Language and Communication
Speech is highly stylized in Igbo culture, with specific rules on how to addresses a neighbor, a superior, an ancestral spirits, and the gods. Respect is usually at the heart of formal speech. While dialogue is usually direct in its meaning, speakers often adorn conversations with proverbs or references to folktales, which play a profound role in shaping Igbo beliefs. Language, too, has a way of either including or alienating a listener. The gods have their own language which lowly humans cannot understand. The Christians speak English and require an interpreter to communicate with the Umuofia. However, interpreters are often from different parts of the country and have noticeable differences in speech. So concepts and connotations are inevitably lost in translation.