Things Fall Apart fits the definition of tragedy because it documents both the personal downfall of Okonkwo and the broader erosion of the Igbo cultural world that Okonkwo wishes to defend. From the very beginning of the novel, Achebe clarifies the extent to which Okonkwo’s status and sense of self-worth depend on normative Igbo ideas of masculinity. Okonkwo struggles to free himself from his father’s disreputable legacy and earn a place among the elders of Umuofia. His zealous pursuit of fame and recognition frequently brings him into conflict with others.
Life is tough enough for Okonkwo before the incursion of Christian missionaries and British colonial forces, but the foreigners’ arrival in the nine villages marks the end of Igbo autonomy, as well as the end of any possibility for Okonkwo to earn honor as a clan elder. With this double deprivation leaving Okonkwo with no way out, he succumbs to despair and commits suicide, the most abominable act an Igbo man can perform.
Things Fall Apart even has a tragic-sounding title. The title is a quote from W. B. Yeats’s ominous poem “The Second Coming.” The reference to Yeats provides the novel with a sense of tragic inevitability. Achebe subtly underscores this sense of inevitability by echoing the language of Yeats’s poem throughout the story. Achebe echoes one line in particular: “Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” The refrain loosed upon the world appears at two significant moments in Things Fall Apart. The first comes when Ekwefi disobeys a priestess’s command not to follow her to the oracle’s cave. In the terrifying dark of the night, Ekwefi recalls “those evil essences loosed upon the world by the potent ‘medicines’ which the tribe . . . had now forgotten how to control.”
The second moment comes just before Okonkwo is cast out of Umuofia for the crime of manslaughter: “[If] the clan did not exact punishment for an offense against the great goddess, [the Earth goddess’s] wrath was loosed on all the land and not just on the offender.” In both cases, refrains of Yeats’s loosed upon the world indicate the threat of ultimate tragedy.
Historical fiction encompasses any narrative that takes place at a particular time in the past. Achebe’s novel fits into this broad genre since it tells a story set in the precolonial period, leading up to first contact with the British. Achebe does not make the precise timeframe of Things Fall Apart clear, which makes sense since precolonial Igbo people did not use the European system of months and years. Nevertheless, we can date the story to sometime in the mid to late nineteenth century, when British colonial forces slowly gained influence in the lower Niger delta region where Achebe locates the fictional village of Umuofia.
Achebe offers a detailed portrait of precolonial Igbo customs, and he carefully avoids presenting an idealized picture of what village life was like before contact with Europeans. Written in the years just before Nigerian independence, Achebe’s historical vision carried political weight. Despite being fiction, Things Fall Apart insists on the rich reality of Igbo history, which European historical accounts tend to erase.