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Invitation to World Literature

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Key Teaching Points and Discussion Prompts

Characters

  1. Who is Chielo? What is her role in society? Why does she take Ezinma?
  2. How does Ikemefuma end up living in Okonkwo's household?
  3. Who is Uchendu? How do you think Okonkwo responds privately to all the help he receives from Uchendu and his sons?

Plot Actions

  1. Why does Okonkwo break taboo by beating his third wife during the week of peace?
  2. Why is it ironic that Okonkwo's crime of breaking taboo by accidentally killing a boy at his father's funeral is considered by the clan to be a female offense?
  3. What action may have hastened the arrival of the missionary to Umuofia?
  4. Okonkwo kills the messenger even though he knows the clan will not go to war against the British—why do you think he does this? Who is he rejecting? (Hint: think about this passage, which comes just after Okonkwo kills the messenger: "He knew that Umuofia would not go to war. He knew because they had let the other messengers escape. They had broken into tumult instead of action. He discerned fright in that tumult. He heard voices asking: 'Why did he do it?'")

Themes

  1. Why does Christianity appeal to some of the Igbos in Umuofia?
  2. How do the British political authorities, as opposed to the missionaries, go about establishing their power in the Igbo lands?
  3. Think about Obierko's last words on Okonkwo; do they sum up Okonkwo's life and tragic end, or do they miss the source of Okonkwo's fall?
  4. What are the implications of Achebe's choice of a title drawn from poet W. B. Yeats' famous response to the horror of World War I? How far are both writers portraying universal themes and events, and how far are they reflecting the specifics of colonial struggles in which they were engaged?.

Discussion Prompts to Encourage Critical Thinking

  1. Joseph Conrad's 1902 novel Heart of Darkness is one of the most famous stories about Africa in Western literature. In it, a European man, Mr. Kurtz, who is a colonial agent sent to "subdue" a jungle region, is reduced to insanity after being exposed to an African society that is untouched by European contact, perhaps because he realizes that that his own society, an imperial European society conquering the world, is not the only real one. He can't handle this realization, and goes mad. Marlow, the story's narrator, is sent up the Congo River to find him, working hard not to have the same experience. Here is part of what Achebe has said about Heart of Darkness:

    "...It is the desire...the need—in Western psychology to set Africa up as a foil for Europe ...Heart of Darkness projects the image of Africa as 'the other world,' the antithesis of Europe and therefore of civilization, a place where man's...intelligence and refinement are finally mocked by triumphant bestiality. ...The real question is the dehumanization of Africa and Africans. ...And the question is whether a novel which celebrates this dehumanization, which depersonalizes a portion of the human race, can be called a great work of art. My answer is: No, it cannot."

    Do you agree with Achebe? Can a work like Conrad's be considered great, or does its portrayal of Africa and Africans keep it from truly speaking to all readers?
  2. The Igbos struggle with colonial power and an encroaching European culture. What is your understanding of how colonialism works, how it affects peoples and their cultures? Does colonialism fundamentally change a person's understanding of him or herself? Does it lead to a loss of culture? Can any element of colonialism, and its accompanying technological modernization, be considered positive?
  3. The novel's ending is bleak. Does this mean that the Igbo lost everything or that they are destined to lose everything in the face of colonization? Is there a difference between accepting European ideas and European domination?
  4. Achebe has said, "I want to sort of scream that Things Fall Apart is on the side of women...And that Okonkwo is paying the penalty for his treatment of women; that all his problems, all the things he did wrong, can be seen as offenses against the feminine." What are Okonkwo's offenses against women? Do you agree that his downfall was brought on by his attitude toward manliness?
  5. Identify and discuss one aspect of Igbo culture, such as a belief or custom (e.g. chi), which is essential to the story. Discuss how it works and what it means for a character or characters.