Things Fall Apart, Part 2: Crash Course Literature 209


In which John Green concludes teaching you about Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. You’ll learn about the historical contexts of Things Fall Apart, including 19th century colonization and 20th century decolonization. We’re going to learn a little bit about Achebe’s childhood between two cultures, cover Okonkwo’s sad, sad end, and even learn a little about The Babysitters Club.

Transcript Provided by YouTube:

00:00
Hi I’m John Green, this is Crash Course Literature, and today we continue our discussion
00:04
of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. Mr. Green, Mr. Green! I can’t even believe
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we’re spending two weeks on this book. Like, it’s about as long as a Babysitter’s Club book.
00:11
Okay, couple things, Me From the Past. First off, the length of a book is not directly proportional to its quality.
00:16
Secondly, I could do, like, five Crash Course Literatures on Babysitter’s Club 26, Claudia and the Sad Goodbye.
00:21
Trying to pretend that you didn’t like The Babysitter’s Club so you’ll seem cool – I see through you, Me From the Past!
00:26
So, Things Fall apart is interesting on a lot of levels, and part of that is due to
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the historical contexts of the story. And I did say contexts, plural.
00:34
Because it’s a historical novel about the colonization of Africa in the late 19th century,
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but it was written in the late 1950s, just as European colonial powers were giving up their colonies.
00:44
And like the novel, Chinua Achebe lived between these two worlds. So let’s start there.
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[Theme Music]
00:58
So Chinua Achebe was born Albert Chinuamaluga Achebe in 1930, about eighty years after the
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first missionaries arrived in Igboland. His father had converted to Christianity,
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hence the Albert, through one of the missionary schools in Nigeria and became an evangelist for the church.
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But the rest of Achebe’s family adhered to the traditional Igbo culture and religious traditions,
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which meant Achebe spent his childhood at “the crossroads of culture,” as he once put it.
01:21
By the age of eight, he could read in Igbo and in English. He read Shakespeare and missionary
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texts one day and sat in Igbo storytelling circles the next.
01:30
And he wrote Things Fall Apart to “retell the story of my encounter with Europe in a
01:35
way acceptable to me,” and to counter the traditional European view of Africa and Africans
01:41
with a human picture that matched the complexity of actual humans.
01:45
And with Okonkwo’s story, Achebe grounds the reader really deeply in the ancient Igbo
01:50
life and culture before there’s even any mention of missionaries. So we get a clear
01:54
look at the structures and beliefs and traditions that held the community together before Europeans arrived.
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Except, of course, it’s also not a clear look because one, we’re reading fiction. More importantly,
02:03
we’re reading fiction written a hundred years after European contact. Anyway, early on in Things Fall Apart,
02:09
we hear that in Igboland, “The land of the living was not far removed from the domain
02:14
of the ancestors. There was coming and going between them, especially at festivals and
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also when an old man died, because an old man was very close to the ancestors. A man’s
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life from birth to death was a series of transition rites which brought him nearer and nearer
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to his ancestors.” So Achebe shows us a functioning society with
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institutions like the tribal council that settle disputes and bring order to Igboland.
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Now these institutions may not be recognizable to the Westerners who showed up for the palm
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oil, but they had functioned for thousands of years.
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And then, when British missionaries and colonial governors arrive on the scene, they fail to
02:47
understand these institutions and they try to replace them with their own forms of religion
02:52
and government. But one of the fascinating things about this
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novel is that it doesn’t unambiguously condemn or praise either worldview, right? Like, there
02:58
are clearly problems with both systems of justice.
03:01
And that really runs counter to the European essentializing of pre-colonial African lives,
03:06
which usually imagines them either as uncivilized savages or else as these innocents living
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in an Edenic utopia. So Okonkwo is in exile when the Europeans
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first show up in the story, but when he returns to his transformed community, he urges resistance.
03:19
But his friend Obierka responds sadly, “It is already too late. Our own men and our sons
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have joined the ranks of the stranger. They have joined his religion and they help to
03:29
uphold his government.” This is of course particularly interesting
03:32
considering that it was written in the context of a decolonizing late 1950s Africa.
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So how did the British Empire end up coming to power in Igboland? Well, let’s go to
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the Thought Bubble. So in the 19th century, when the events of
03:43
this story took place, all the great European powers were busily setting up colonial empires
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across the world. These overseas colonies were a real win/win
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for Europe, as they not only furnished raw materials to feed the manufacturing economies
03:55
back home, they also acted as new markets in which to sell industrial goods. So colonies
04:00
were popular. They were so popular, in fact, that the German
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Chancellor organized a conference to divide up Africa among the Europeans, in order to
04:07
avoid any wars over the continent. They would also have the happy side effect
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of spreading the so-called Three C’s: commerce, Christianity, and civilization.
04:16
So, at the Berlin conference of 1885, Africa’s fate was decided. Oh, also no one from Africa
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was invited to the conference, naturally. In West Africa, much of the colonial trade
04:24
had been in slaves prior to 1807, and most of that horrifying business was done on the
04:29
coast. There wasn’t much colonial settling in the interior until after the slave trade
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was banned in the British Empire. With the slave trade no longer an option,
04:37
the British turned to palm trees. Palm oil made for a great lubricant for industrial
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machinery, and after colonization, more than 16 million pounds worth, that’s currency
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not weight, by the way, were exported per year.
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The British Empire laid claim to Igboland, which was rich in palm trees and also non-Christians,
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a perfect opportunity to put the three C’s into practice.
04:58
Thanks, Thought Bubble. So, that helps us to understand the historical context for the
05:01
setting of the book. The OTHER historical context is the time in which it was written.
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By 1958, Africa was beginning the process of decolonization, as European powers gave
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up their colonies. And that meant that throughout Africa, people
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were having conversations about what the future should look like. Should we embrace European-style
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nation states? Should we have some kind of pan-African cooperation?
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Marxism, capitalism – who would make a better ally, the Soviet Union or the United States?
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And so in that context, Achebe gives us a story about the pre-colonial Igbo world,
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which has a stability, and a kind of strength to it, but is certainly not without its problems,
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while also giving us a look at colonial Igboland. But it’s interesting to note that because
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he is obsessed with strength and acts out of fear, Okonkwo doesn’t fare particularly
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well under either structure. But anyway, back to the text. So the British
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incursion into Igboland is the focus of the final part of the book. Missionaries are the
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first to arrive in the interior villages, and at first, there doesn’t seem to be much
05:53
cause for alarm. The first missionary Okonkwo encounters is
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a guy named Mr. Kiaga and he is characterized as a man of great faith but is thought of
06:02
as “harmless.” Then there’s Mr. Brown, the missionary based
06:05
in Umofia, who gained respect through a “policy of compromise and accommodation.” Mr Brown
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is willing to listen to the villagers talk about their beliefs, and tries to incorporate
06:15
some of their traditions into the practices of his Christianity.
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But then Mr. Brown’s successor in Umofia, the Reverend James Smith, “saw things as
06:23
black and white. And black was evil. He saw the world as a battlefield in which the children
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of light were locked in mortal conflict with the sons of darkness.”
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And Smith’s uncompromising stance inevitably leads to conflict with the people of Umofia,
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and ultimately to the destruction of the mission church. We’re told “the red-earth church
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which Mr. Brown had built was a pile of earth and ashes. And for the moment the spirit of
06:47
the clan was pacified.” So in three quick steps with three missionaries,
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we go from a harmless one to one whose rigid belief system leads the community to violence.
06:56
The town then keeps itself armed and ready for a reprisal, and “Okonkwo was almost
07:00
happy again,” we’re told. But instead, Okonkwo and several other village leaders
07:04
are arrested, beaten by their jailers, and the village is forced to pay a fine.
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Okonkwo calls a town meeting to organize a forceful resistance and when the authorities
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arrive to break it up, he beheads one of the messengers. And then the gathered villagers
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do not rally to his side, and he knows that his cause is lost. “He knew that Umuofia
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would not go to war. He knew because they had let the other messengers escape.”
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And then when the British District Commissioner arrives to arrest Okonkwo, he finds that Okonkwo
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has hanged himself. Achebe closes the novel by revealing the District
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Commissioner’s thoughts about all he had learned “in the many years in which he had
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toiled to bring civilization to different parts of Africa.”
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The Commissioner wants to write a book about his experiences, which he plans to call “The
07:48
Pacification of the Primitives of the Lower Niger.” And he decides that Okonkwo, the
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textured character we’ve come to know through the course of this novel, would warrant, “Perhaps
07:56
not a chapter, but a reasonable paragraph.” In those final moments of the novel, we see
08:01
the loss of humanity that’s inherent to colonization, and indeed that’s inherent
08:06
to the privileged gazing upon the other. The European system of colonization so profoundly
08:11
failed to see human beings as human beings that it wrought destruction in Africa and
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across the world. But of course, Okonkwo and his village are
08:18
not just a paragraph to us. They are not a footnote. Things Fall Apart, and great books
08:23
like it, help us to wipe away some of the spots on the lenses of our perception. They
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let us see more clearly, and ask us to imagine the world and the people in it with more complexity
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and they ask us the big questions, the kinds that may not easy answers, but are still worth
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pursuing. As Achebe said later in his life, “Igbo people say, If you want to see it
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well, you must not stand in one place.” Thanks for watching. I’ll see you next week.
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Crash Course is made by all of these nice people and it exists because of your support
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at Subbable.com. Subbable is a voluntary subscription platform
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that allows you to directly support Crash Course so that we can make it free for everyone
08:58
forever. Thank you again for watching and thank you for bearing with me as I deal with
09:02
this endless cold! Also, the open letter will be back next week when we will be talking
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about To Kill a Mockingbird and I promise I will not sound like a bullfrog then. As
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we say in my hometown, don’t forget to be awesome.


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