These prompts should point you in interesting directions, leaving you to chart your course, not lead you by the nose, determining your every step. Don’t feel obligated or expected to address each question or to address them in the order in which they’re posed. You’re to craft your own thesis and to make your own argument.
- What’s the novel’s view of women and their importance for the novel’s larger themes?
- Igbo proverb: “The thought that led a man to truncate his own existence was not conceived in a day.” What are the thoughts that led Okonkwo to his suicide? How were they formed over many days? Do you see his act as a cowardly one or a courageous one? (You choice needn’t be either/or.)
- Achebe has said “that African peoples did not hear of culture for the first time from Europeans; that their societies were not mindless but frequently had a philosophy of great depth and value and beauty, that they had poetry and, above all, they had dignity.” Write an essay that defines and explores that culture and reflects on its importance to the novel’s larger themes.
- Define the point of view from which the story is told and the role the narrator plays in the story. Explore the art of Achebe’s choice.
- Explain Achebe’s choice to end the novel as he does.
- How does Achebe create characters? Define his methods and means and explore their art.
- It is said of Okonkwo at one point that “Clearly his personal god or chi was not made for great things. A man could not rise beyond the destiny of his chi. The saying of the elders was not true—that if a man said yea his chi also affirmed. Here was a man whose chi said nay despite his own affirmation” (76). How should we understand the roles of fate and individual responsibility in the novel
- Okonkwo’s self-understanding is deeply bound up with his need to affirm and protect what he thinks of as his “manliness.” What are the main features of Okonkwo’s view of masculinity, and how does his view relate to that of other important characters in the novel? Do you see problems with Okonkwo’s view?
- Achebe’s style seems very simple. Is it really as simple as it seems? Define and explore the artfulness of the novel’s style. How does that style contribute to the novel’s larger meanings?
- After Okonkwo’s female killing of the boy, Obierika, the novel’s philosopher, wonders, “Why should a man suffer so grievously for an offense he had committed inadvertently?” The narrator tells us that “although he thought for a long time he found no answer. He was merely led into greater complexities” (74). Does the novel answer what Obierika can’t?
- Igbo culture believes “there is a fundamental justice in the universe and nothing so terrible can happen to a person for which he is not somehow responsible” (“Chi in Igbo Cosmology” 163). Explore the justice of Okonkwo’s actions and his responsibility for them. What view of justice emerges?
- How does the novel depict and treat the Christian missionaries? Do you see bias or objectivity? What role does the treatment of the missionaries play in the novel’s larger themes?
Objectives: Students will become familiar with colonial history as well as the background and context for the novel and author.
Aim: What’s the role of fiction in understanding colonial history?
Resources: About the author
Respond to the quote,
“The last four or five hundred years of European contact with Africa produced a body of literature that presented Africa in a very bad light and Africans in very lurid terms. The reason for
this had to do with the need to justify the slave trade and slavery.… This continued until the Africans themselves, in the middle of
the twentieth century, took into their own hands the telling of their story.” (Chinua Achebe, “An African Voice”, The Atlantic)
Discuss Preparatory Reading:
- “The Novelist as Teacher” by Chinua Achebe
- “Teaching Things Fall Apart” by Chinua Achebe
- “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness” by Chinua Achebe
• A brief history of precolonial Nigeria and the colonization of Africa
• 1958, first publication of Things Fall Apart
• Nigeria: British colony from end of 19th c. until 1960
• 1967‐70 Biafran War (Igbo secession)
• Major ethnic groups (70% of population): Hausa‐Fulani, Yoruba and Igbo
• Est. 2005 pop of Nigeria: 128 million
• Tumultuous political history since independence; many of Achebe’s other books confront corruption in politics, social issues
• Identify Nigeria on the map of Africa, and the approximate setting for the fictional village of Umuofia in the novel
• Discuss the people, languages and religions of Nigeria today, as well as any political
or popular news you feel is relevant to your course
• Discuss why context is important to understanding the novel
• Provide background information on Achebe and his life, other works, career, etc
• Be sure to remind your students to make use of the glossary in the back of the book.
• Let them know they will be responsible for the terms and concepts Achebe presents.
• Discussion of the colonialist, Eurocentric representations of African history and how the novel directly confronts these. Discuss how “history” is an imperfect record of events and is subject to the biases and perspectives of those who record it. Discuss the role of objectivity and integrity in contemporary historiography.
• This is the perfect opportunity to also set some ground rules as a class for what kind of language is and is not appropriate/respectful when talking about Africa. Using “How To Write About Africa” by Binyavanga Wainaina could be a good way to bring
up the issue of stereotypes and misconceptions about Africa
• Introduce the concept of understanding and analyzing fiction and using close reading to create meaning in the Wisconsin classroom
• Discuss the author’s contention that his work has (at least partly) a didactic role in terms of “re‐teaching” the history of Africa in a more positive light.
o Use this idea to discuss:
What this means to American readers? Are we “outsiders?”The role of fiction/literature in understanding history.Whether or not fiction can “revise” history. What does this really mean?
Discussion Questions: ( Practice):
• What is fiction?
• What is history?
• Find Nigeria on the map of Africa. Discuss its features.
• Compare contemporary, colonial and pre‐colonial maps of Africa. Discuss their features.
• What does “diversity” mean in Nigeria as compared to the US?
• What are stereotypes? How do certain words promote a negative impression of Africa or Africans?
o What is problematic about the following terms: tribe, hut, savage, primitive, backward, timeless, primordial, (etc)? Why are these terms problematic? Why might some people find them offensive or disparaging?
• Who is Chinua Achebe?
• Who lives in Nigeria?
• What are the official languages of Nigeria? How many languages are spoken throughout the country? How many cultural or ethnic groups can you find on the map (see supplementary materials for linguistic and ethnic maps of Nigeria)?
Homework: Do research and write an essay in which you reflect on (mis)representations of Africa in the media and popular culture. Find a movie, tv show, advertisement or song that reproduces a negative stereotype and then relate that to Achebe’s project of combating misrepresentation of African history. Think of what stereotypes or generalizations are applied to their own [ethnic, cultural, religious, family, social] group and reflect on how/why those generalizations are problematic or misleading.
Objectives: Students will be able to better understand and engage with key Igbo cultural concepts developed in the text so that they can better relate to the story and appreciate the complexity of the novel.
Aim: Some novels and plays seem to advocate changes in social or political attitudes or in traditions.What particular attitudes or traditions does the author apparently wishes to modify as revealed in Things Fall Apart?
Resources: KWHL Chart
• Proverbs (“the palm‐oil with which words are eaten” 5)
• Define cosmology and religion and use the Igbo Cosmology chart to teach the Ibgo system of gods, intermediaries and humans
• Chi – personal god; can be controlled by humans
• Social structure and hierarchy of Igbo society
o Titled and untitled citizens
o Egwugwu (masquerades) – men and titled men; masks as primary visual art of Ibo
o Osu (outcasts)
• Polygamy and family structure (compound living within village system)
• System of villages, shared governance, laws. Communication methods (drum, messengers,
• Matriarchal or patriarchal? Gender roles don’t necessarily correspond to Western categories.
Eg: “Mother is Supreme” (133) [see gender unit for more on this]
. Drums and ogene as metaphors for the “heart” of the people – “The drums were still beating, persistent and unchanging. Their sound was no longer a separate thing from the living village. It was like the pulsation of its heart” (44).
Do Now: Share the information you have gathered from the following reading –
• “Talking About ‘Tribe’” Africa Action http://www.africaaction.org/bp/ethall.htm
• University of Iowa’s Ibgo information page:
1. Who are the Igbo people? Where do they live? What is their life like? How have their customs and traditions changed since the 1880s? Since the 1950s?
2. What do they believe? Describe their religious system and the hierarchy of Igbo cosmology.
3. What is the concept of ogbanje (77) and how is it important to the novel?
4. What other cultural concepts in the book are unique to Igbo people? Why do you think Achebe includes these? What do they tell us about Igbo people and their beliefs in the novel?
5. What are “kola nuts” and how are they used in the novel? What do they represent or symbolize?
6. Discuss the idea of “cultural tourism.” Do you feel like an outsider or voyeur when you read some of these passages? Explain.
7. What elements of Igbo culture and society are similar to your own? What elements differ?
Read the passages and write a response on how these passages reveal that Achebe tries to advocates changes in social or political attitudes or in traditions-
• The ogbanje scene with Ezinma
• P. 124‐125, which describe the legal ramifications for Okonkwo’s crime, and Obierika reflects on the justice of such laws.
• Any of the passages that deal with the throwing out of twins into the Evil Forest
Open-Ended Essay Topics
1987. Some novels and plays seem to advocate changes in social or political attitudes or in traditions. Choose such a novel or play and note briefly the particular attitudes or traditions that the author apparently wishes to modify. Then analyze the techniques the author uses to influence the reader’s or audience’s views. Avoid plot summary.
1991. Many plays and novels use contrasting places (for example, two countries, two cities or towns, two houses, or the land and the sea) to represent opposed forces or ideas that are central to the meaning of the work. Choose a novel or play that contrasts two such places. Write an essay explaining how the places differ, what each place represents, and how their contrast contributes to the meaning of the work.
1995. Writers often highlight the values of a culture or a society by using characters who are alienated from that culture or society because of gender, race, class, or creed. Choose a novel or a play in which such a character plays a significant role and show how that character’s alienation reveals the surrounding society’s assumptions or moral values.
1997. Novels and plays often include scenes of weddings, funerals, parties, and other social occasions. Such scenes may reveal the values of the characters and the society in which they live. Select a novel or play that includes such a scene and, in a focused essay, discuss the contribution the scene makes to the meaning of the work as a whole. You may choose a work from the list below or another novel or play of literary merit.
Descriptions: American students often have a knee jerk reaction to the way women are depicted in this
novel, and see the text as sexist, and Okonkwo as the ultimate chauvinist. And it’s true: Achebe
goes to great pains to demonstrate how Okonkwo’s skewed view of gender roles has an impact on both his thinking and his actions. However, this theme is much more complex and sophisticated than being simply a matter of “male” and “female” tensions; it provokes serious discussion of how these interact, where they overlap, how both Igbo and European societies may have problematic assessments of gender roles, and so on. One important thing to keep in mind when teaching gender in the novel is that Okonkwo’s view does not represent the “norm”
of Igbo thought in this text; there are many illustrations of how his distorted interpretation of
gendered roles is what leads to trouble in his life. To find and identify these moments in the text would help us understand deeply the hero’s downfall. Themes of gender and engendered meaning
play an enormous role in the novel, and you could approach this theme from several perspectives:
• By character, with a focus on the relationship between Okonkwo and Nwoye and Okonkwo and Ezinma
• By looking at language and how so many everyday things and concepts have gendered meaning for the Igbo people in the novel. You could look at traditional roles for men and women within Igbo society, and discuss what it means to be “a man” (or a woman) in the novel. Think, too, about how individual concepts and ideas are associated with gender, and what this means to the novel as a whole.
• By analyzing the role of kinship, family and the role of the extended family that is central to Okonkwo’s story – as well as the disctinction between “motherland” and “fatherland” and “matriarchal” vs “patriarchal” perspectives in the text.
• By analyzing Okonkwo and his deepest fear: becoming like his father, who he feels is feminine and weak. Contrast Okonkwo’s view with that of other, more moderate, characters in the novel.
Objective: To discuss and explore what gender means in the novel, and help students see
how complex this theme really is, even though Okonkwo’s view seems very narrow and clear‐
cut. Students will relate this discussion to gender roles in their own cultures, and explore why/how things are not always as they seem when it comes to gender relations and assumptions.
• “Women in Achebe’s World: A Womanist Critique” by Rose Ure Mezu (in Chinua Achebe: The Man and His Works 2006)
• “Problems of Gender and History in the Teaching of Things Fall Apart” by Rhonda Cobham (Modern Critical Interpretations: Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, ed. Harold Bloom 2002
• “Okonkwo and His Mother: Things Fall Apart and Issues of Gender in the Constitution of African Postcolonial Discourse” by Biodun Jeyifo (in Chinua Achebe’s
• Things Fall Apart: A Casebook, ed. Isidore Okpewho 2003)
• “Igbo Women from 1929‐1960” by John N. Oriji (West Africa Review)
• Ngambika (excerpt)
Lecture points: In addition to addressing the ideas listed above, a lecture on gender in the text
might include the following:
• Explanation of the difference between sex and gender
• Discussion of what gender means to culture, how language can be “gendered,” and gendered meaning affects the way we see the world
• A reminder that gender roles vary by society and what is “sexist” or inappropriate in one place might be perfectly normal somewhere else. Gender roles are not the same in all places, and based on only the fictional world of Things Fall Apart, we can’t
really make blanket assessments about “all of Igbo culture” or people
• Provide some background and context for gender roles in Igbo societies (then and now might be nice, but at a minimum at the time of the novel’s setting).
• Masculinity/femininity, the role of a “man” in society – compare and contrast
Okonkwo with his father – use this to discuss how (if at all) students have a different view of what it means to be “a real man”
• Gendered meanings (motherland, fatherland; masc/fem words)
• Kinship and extended family. Define matriarchy and patriarchy and what they mean to cultural rules and norms. Ask the class to think of examples of both positive and negative effects of both matriarchal and patriarchal systems. Point out ways in which our own society is structured patriarchally. Ask students to think of other examples.
• Provide some history and context for what it means to be “feminist” in Africa and how/why terms like “womanism” are preferred. You may consider discussing the debate over feminism as a Western concept, and whether or not there is a universal standard that should apply to all women when it comes to women’s rights and roles in society.
• Discuss the nuances of gender in the text and how gender issues are not just male vs. female in the text. Achebe develops lots of grey area – characters with different views, male characters who “act” female or female characters who “act” male, etc.
• How does Okonkwo’s relationship with male and female characters differ? Why?
• What role to women play in this novel? What is life like for Okonkwo’s wives?
• Some female characters in the book don’t seem to fit the mold according to Okonkwo’s view? Who are they and why are they important to the text?
• What material things can you find in the book that have a specific gender? Does their gender effect their meaning or how they are used? How or how not?
• When Okonkwo is sent into exile, he is sent to Mbanta, his “motherland,” where things seem very different than life in Umuofia. How are they different? What do these differences tell us about gender? What do you make of the expression
“Mother is Supreme” that is mentioned in the book?
• What do the terms “patriarchy” and “matriarchy” mean? Give one example of each from the text.
• How is Okonkwo’s view of gender different from other characters’ view of gender roles in the novel? Give examples.
• Think about the character Ezinma. Of Ezinma, Okonkwo thinks: “She should have been a boy” (p. 64). Why is it necessary to the story that Okonkwo’s most favored child be a girl? What does it mean that she has all of the characteristics that her father finds more valuable in a son?
• In the novel, there are two kinds of murder – male and female (124). What are these and what do they mean to the novel? Does it matter that Okonkwo committed the “female” kind of murder?
Suggested passages for close reading
• The first paragraph on page 13 that begins “Okonkwo rules his household with a heavy hand…” In this paragraph, we learn about his fear of weakness and how he learns that agbala means both “woman” and a man who has no title. Discuss how this effect his attitude and views about gender.
• “Nwoye knew that it was right to be masculine and to be violent, but somehow he
still preferred the stories that his mother used to tell, and which she no doubt still told to her younger children… […] That was the kind of story Nwoye loved. But he now knew that they were for foolish women and children, and he knew that his
father wanted him to be a man. And so he feigned that he no longer cared for women’s stories…” (53‐54) What does this passage tell us about the conflict
between father and son? What does it tell us about what gender means in the novel? How does it foreshadow Nwoye’s later conversion?
• Women “never saw the inside of the [egwugwu house]. No woman ever did. They scrubbed and painted he outside walls under the supervision of men. If they imagined what was inside, they kept their imagination to themselves. No woman
ever asked questions about the most powerful and the most secret cult in the clan” (89). This is a good example of how women and men have different social roles in Igbo society. Discuss this passage and what it means to the novel.
• The discussion of motherland and “mother is supreme” on p. 133‐135
• The very important passage in which Okonkwo’s friend Ofoedu discusses the relationship of a well‐known couple, Ndulue and Ozoemena, who have both died at the same time. Obierika says “It was always said that Ndulue and Ozoemena had
one mind. ..He could not do anything without telling her.” To which Okonkwo replied, “I did not know that. I thought he was a strong man in his youth.” And Ofoedu says, “He was indeed.” (68) This is a key passage as it shows that other
esteemed elders in the village do not share Okonkwo’s view that warriors cannot be
loving or gentle or close to others; it demonstrates that his rigid position on what constitutes strong masculine behavior is not shared by all Igbo men.
Assignment Ideas( Select one assignment to do)
• Okonkwo’s view does not represent the “norm” of Igbo thought in this text; there are many illustrations of how his distorted interpretation of gendered roles is what leads to trouble in his life. Find at least three passages in the text where Okonkwo’s view is challenged or contradicted in the novel. Use the list to discuss the larger role gender plays in the novel, and what it means to the story. What is the message that these contradictions reveal?
• Compare and contrast the relationships Okonkwo has with his son Nwoye and his daughter, Ezinma.
• Choose one character an write an essay on why gender matters to this person.
• Compare/contrast two characters in a two‐page essay which evaluates how gender meaning differs for each of them. Suggested pairs (Okonkwo/Nwoye, Okonkwo/Obierka, Nwoye/Ezinma, Ezinma/Okonkwo).
Lesson 4: Character Study-: Psychology, Relationships and Meaning
- Okonkwo: Villain, Victim or Tragic Hero?
- Okonkwo and his family: the role of his wives and children
- Ezinma ‐ Fathers, sons and daughters: key relationships in the novel
- Obierika, Voice of Reason
- Outsiders: The role of missionaries and colonial administrators
Character development is central to the development of a wide range of issues in the novel,
such as family, friendships and identity. Okonkwo himself is such a complex character, and most of the other themes in the novel are developed by exploring the relationships between Okonkwo and other characters.
Objective: To perform close readings of specific characters, assess their relationships, anddetermine how characterization relates to other major themes in the novel to create meaning.
• “For Chinua Achebe: The Resilience and the Predicament of Obierika” from Chinua Achebe: A Celebration by Biodun Jeyifo
- Okonkwo protagonist
- Unoka his shiftless, title‐less father
- Okonkwo’s wives: (1) Nwoye’s mother, the senior wife
- Children: Nwoye [Isaac] (m), Obiageli (f), Nneka, Nwofia (“begotten in the wilderness” 45, should’ve been a boy), and the “adopted son” Ikemefuna (m) who is killed by Okonkwo
(2) Ekwefi Child: Ezinma (f)
(3) Ojiugo Children: Nkechi (f), Obiageli (f)
* Note: # of children here incomplete. Text says he has 11 children before the exile; 2 (?) born in exile; 5 sons Ikemefuna young boy captured in revenge for death of a daughter of Umuofia
- Obierka friend of Okonkwo
- Ndulue and Ozoemena couple known for their close relationship (68)
- Ofoedu Friend of Okonkwo and Obierika
- Agbala Oracle of the Hills & the Caves
- Chika Priestess of Agbala
- Chielo Priestess of Agbala
- Ani Earth godess
- Ezeani Priest of Ani
- Uchendu Okonkwo’s mother’s brother in Mbanta (exile)
- Mr. Kiaga missionary interpreter/teacher
Mr. Brown white missionary – compromise and accommodation policy
- Mr. Smith white missionary (Brown’s replacement); no compromise policy
- Nneka first convert; mother of twins
- Okoli man “accused”/presumed/rumored to have killed sacred python (dies 114)
- Enoch priest of the snake cult
Unnamed British colonial administrator who famously
appears to pronounce Okonkwo’s story “interesting reading” for a
paragraph in his memoir: The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the
- Lower Niger
• Begin with a discussion of character analysis – what is is, how to do it, how characters work together to create meaning, etc.
• Discuss the role of the PROTAGONIST and minor or supporting characters.
• Discuss Okonkwo’s role as protagonist. Is he a hero? A victim? A villain?
• Use passages from the text to explorerelationships between characters
o Okonkwo and Unoka
o Okonkwo and Obierika
o Okonkwo and his children
o Okonkwo’s wives and their children etc
• Show how most of the themes in the novel depend on character development to make sense. Use this to demonstrate how novels/fiction work – show how Okonkwo (and the other characters) act out the drama to produce meaning and allow us different points of view to consider as we interpret the novel
• Remind the class that Okonkwo, though esteemed and in a position of authority in his village, is a bit of an anomaly. Others do not share his views on many things.
• You might also consider spending entire days on individual characters to explore how they relate to specific themes/issues
• Nwoye and religion/conversion
• The missionaries vs. the rest of the characters; how do they differ?
• Ezinma and gender roles, Ezinma and Igbo customs/belief
• Ikemefuna and his symbolic death; also what his presence in the novel teaches us about how this society works, its rules and norms
• What is “characterization?” How are characters created in a text?
• What does the term “protagonist” mean? What happens when our protagonist is kind of antagonistic? Is Okonkwo a sympathetic character? How can we relate to him? Does he remind you of anyone you know?
• Do a close reading of the descriptions of Okonkwo and Unoka in chapter one. How do these two characters differ? What kind of language is used to describe each of them? What proverbs are associated with each? What does this contrast foreshadow?
• Discuss specific characters/pairs of characters and what they mean to the rest of the text.
• What is the significance of the child Ikemefuna to the novel? Why does Okonkwo kill him? What can be learned from this episode?
Assignment and Project Ideas:
• Make a list of characters or character pairs for the students and write down the major theme or issue associated with that character/pair of characters.
Find one example of this, with a quote, to present to the rest of the class.
• Write a one‐page character analysis of the character of your choice. Be sure to include: a description of the character, his/her relationship to the protagonist and his/her main function in the novel. Support your response with quotes from the
• Compare and contrast Unoka and Okonkwo. Make a chart or graph of all of their differences.
• Do role play. Get in character and enact specific parts of the book, or answer questions “in character”
• Think about the character of Nwoye. Why does he convert to Christianity? Write an essay in which you discuss the factors that led to his transformation, and how they relate to his relationship with his father.
• Is Okonkwo a tragic hero? Argue and support it with textual evidence.