Invitation to World Literature
Things Fall Apart Things Fall Apart – Key Points
Key Teaching Points and Discussion Prompts
- Who is Chielo? What is her role in society? Why does she take Ezinma?
- How does Ikemefuma end up living in Okonkwo’s household?
- Who is Uchendu? How do you think Okonkwo responds privately to all the help he receives from Uchendu and his sons?
- Why does Okonkwo break taboo by beating his third wife during the week of peace?
- 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?
- What action may have hastened the arrival of the missionary to Umuofia?
- 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?'”)
- Why does Christianity appeal to some of the Igbos in Umuofia?
- How do the British political authorities, as opposed to the missionaries, go about establishing their power in the Igbo lands?
- 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?
- 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
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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.
Unit 1 The Epic of Gilgamesh
The first known human story is that of Gilgamesh, king of Uruk. Images of artifacts from ancient Iraq mix with beautiful illustrations, dance, and costume to tell of the relations between gods and mortals, the search for friendship, love, and immortality. Featured cast members include Assyriologist Ben Foster, comic book illustrator Jim Starlin, and poet and playwright Yusef Komunyakaa.
Unit 2 My Name Is Red
Both an historical novel and a graphic murder mystery set among the miniaturists of the Ottoman court. With its focus on Istambul, a major crossroads of the world, it tells of the artistic/cultural contest between Europe and the East. Cast members include the book's Nobel-prize winning author, Orhan Pamuk, and its English translator, Erdağ Göknar.
Unit 3 The Odyssey
Odysseus must travel the known and unknown world before he can return home to his beloved island kingdom of Ithaca. What does this ancient story say to readers today? In this program, Odysseus's story is given ancient and modern historical and philosophical context, and illustrated with centuries of art. Featured are theater director Mary Zimmerman, actor-director Tim Blake-Nelson, and psychologist/author Jonathan Shay.
Unit 4 The Bacchae
The city of Thebes is torn apart by the conflicting demands of reason and religion, as the disguised god Dionysus returns to his home town demanding to be worshipped. Opposing him is the young king Pentheus, who is doomed to suffer the ultimate punishment for his disbelief. Featured speakers include world-renowned playwright/author Wole Soyinka, actor Alan Cumming, and Daniel Mendelsohn of Bard College.
Unit 5 The Bhagavad Gita
This epic tale of the warrior-prince Arjuna confronting a life-or-death dilemma during civil war presents a unique and powerful philosophy of duty, discipline, and serving a higher purpose. Beautiful illustrations connect the story with its rich history and culture. Featured speakers include Sheldon Pollock, Professor of Sanskrit Studies and acclaimed composer Philip Glass.
Unit 6 The Tale of Genji
This portrait of court life in medieval Japan follows the life and exploits of the great Genji. Written by Murasaki Shikibu, a lady of the Japanese court, it provides an insider's view of Japanese court life, the official and behind the screen. Art, clothing, music from the time of the novel illustrate the obserations of authors Jane Smiley and Chiori Miyagawa, among others.
Unit 7 Journey to the West
The powerful and mischievous Stone Monkey King brings chaos to heaven and earth. Freed from a mountain prison in order to guard a Chinese monk on his journey to retrieve the Buddhist scriptures from India, Monkey seeks his own spiritual transformation. Modern performance, contemporary art, and Buddhist philosophers provide a rich context to the ancient tale. Featured cast members include playwright David Henry Huang, storyteller Diane Wolkstein, and translator Professor Anthony Yu.
Unit 8 Popol Vuh
The Mayan book of creation, the dawn of life, and the glories of gods and kings. This magnificent epic was saved from destruction at the hands of the Spanish by Quiché chroniclers. Once repressed, the story is now interwoven with the history of today's Mayan people. Featured speakers include archaeologist Richard Hanson, humorist Mo Rocca, and Guatemalan artist Shuni Giron.
Unit 9 Candide
A satirical novel following the travails of Candide, a hopeless optimist whose faith in his tutor's mantra that his is "the best of all possible worlds" is tested beyond all limits. Voltaire's challenge to the aristocracy of his day proves refreshingly amusing and biting today. Original illustrations, songs, and comic book figures plumb the depths of this satire. Featured speakers include director Harold Ramis, actress Kristin Chenoweth, and cartoonist Chris Ware.
Unit 10 Things Fall Apart
In this foundational modern African novel, Chinua Achebe's story follows the lives of people trying to understand which belief systems deserve their loyalty. The protagonist, Okonkwo is a tribal leader who battles neighboring villages, the English, and his own demons in early colonial Nigeria. The perspectives of readers from around the world reveal the novel's universal themes. Cast members include playwright and professor Tess Onwueme and theater director Chuck Mike.
Unit 11 One Hundred Years of Solitude
Gabriel García Márquez's multigenerational saga of the Buendía family in the isolated town of Macondo inaugurated the boom in Latin American literature in the 1970s and marked the beginning of magical realism. Writer Sandra Cisneros and scholar of Latin American literature, Ilan Stavans lend their thoughts and voices to the discussion of this epic novel.
Unit 12 The God of Small Things
Fraternal twins Rahel and Estha struggle to reclaim their lives after their childhood is destroyed by tragic circumstances. As past and present merge in this narrative of Indian society and politics, the many layers of the caste system are mirrored in the poetic and inventive language of the author. Featured speakers include Simon Gikandi of Princeton University, author Evelyn Ch'ien.
Unit 13 The Thousand and One Nights
Shahrazad must hold the interest of her despotic husband the sultan with nightly tales, lest she lose her life in the morning. This wellspring of storytelling, circulating from medieval Persia to Egypt to Iraq, like its wily raconteur lives on in many modern adaptations. Art, performance, and film images are employed to show the collection's broad span of influence. Featured speakers include Marin Alsop, musical director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and Aly Jetha and Shabnam Rezai, co-producers of the 1001 Nights animated series.