Things Fall Apart does not have an obvious, single antagonist. In some sense, the whole world seems to be against Okonkwo. His family consistently fails to live up to his high expectations. His fellow villagers also let him down, preferring to cower before the Europeans rather than fight to preserve their own cultural traditions. By the end of the novel Okonkwo stands alone, at once “choked with hate” and overcome by sadness:
Okonkwo was deeply grieved. And it was not just a personal grief. He mourned for the clan, which he saw breaking up and falling apart, and he mourned for the warlike men of Umuofia, who had so unaccountably become soft like women.
Although he feels betrayed by everyone in his community, Okonkwo may be his own worst enemy. His inflexible understanding of traditional Igbo masculinity leads him to develop an aggressive and unforgiving personality. Okonkwo’s personality allows no room for nuance or change, and alienates others. In the end, the fact the Okonkwo clings perhaps too desperately to traditional norms may qualify him as the novel’s main antagonist.
In addition to the antagonists that are internal to the Igbo world, the increasing European presence in Igboland represents a significant external antagonist. While the novel explores the numerous internal reasons why things in Umuofia fall apart, the historical occasion for this falling apart is ultimately the arrival of British missionaries and civil servants. In this sense, the more abstract antagonist of the novel is the foreign invasion.
The arrival of the British sets in motion the long, violent process of colonialism that subverts and subjugates indigenous cultures and peoples. Okonkwo recognizes the threat the British pose from the very beginning, but others in the nine villages have mixed feelings. On the one hand, they know the foreigners are powerful and therefore dangerous. On the other hand, they also feel drawn to European medicine, education, and religion. The villagers’ mixed feelings speak to the contradiction of the so-called “civilizing mission” of European imperialism, which offers the gift of progress, but wrapped in violence. This contradiction makes the British a formidable antagonist.