In the first 13 chapters of “Things Fall Apart” by Chinua Achebe, we learn a fair amount about the everyday practices of the Ibo. We don’t have a definite time period for when the action is taking place, but we can guess it’s before the white men came to Africa. And through the example of Okonkwo, we understand what matters to the nine villages. Okonkwo’s strength is renowned; his force is respected; when visitors from other villages come to Umuofia, it is the “tall and huge” (3) and “very severe” (4) Okonkwo whom they assume has all the authority.
The image of Okonkwo that Achebe develops is also surrounded by the customs and practices of the Ibo overall. Achebe allows events like the wrestling match to demonstrate the unity of the villagers, how “The crowd had surrounded and swallowed up the drummers, whose frantic rhythm was no longer a mere disembodied sound but the very heartbeat of the people” (50). Through Okonwko, his three wives and his various children, he describes how men were supposed to personify and share “stories of the land—masculine stories of violence and bloodshed” (55), while women’s tales are more mythical and about the origins of the earth, such as “stories of the tortoise and his wily ways” (55). Men like Okonkwo are supposed to be grounded in reality, while their wives meddle in tales about the past; maintaining that image of strength is demonstrated in Okonkwo’s assistance in murdering foster son Ikemefuna. “Afraid of being thought weak,” Okonkwo goes through with it, possibly sparking a series of corrupt and immoral events that brings the white men to the nine villages.
While reading “Things Fall Apart,” we know the white men will eventually come to Africa. But when they inevitably do in the second half of the book, won’t we be surprised? It’s easy during these first 13 chapters of the book to fall into a world where the nine villages is it, where the white man could never exist, where Okonkwo and his friends are everything and everyone. In “The Fantastic in Literature,” Eric S. Rabkin discusses “Things Fall Apart” as an example of fantastic literature, singling out the passage on page 74 where the men discuss things that “cannot be” and mention white men. The idea that white men, “white like this piece of chalk,” could exist is an unfathomable thing; according to Rabkin, at this point in the story, “the white man is not yet perceived as a threat” (Rabkin 29) — so when they do, the story becomes fantastic. Logically, we know the white men should be coming, but the unbelief we’ve developed up until this point runs counter to that. “What is at first fantastic to the Ibos makes its first step toward becoming all too possible,” Rabkin notes (30), and sets up our expectation of dread, that this cultural downfall will soon occur.
It’s an interesting balance that Achebe builds: Not only do we begin to learn about the Ibo culture, their methods and their customs, but we also begin to fear what we logically know is coming. We’re aware of the reality of what happens in Nigeria, but as Okonkwo and his fellow men laugh off the white men as an impossibility, we as readers become afraid, guessing at everything that can — and probably will — go wrong for the Ibo in coming chapters. As Rabkin says, “Things Fall Apart” is “not very fantastic” as a novel, “but it does use the fantastic to make its point” (30) — one that readily begins to plunge us into despair.