This book tackles many of the same themes as The Masque of Africa, and like that book this one too is a short but powerful work.
I cannot say if Achebe is entirely accurate about his portrayal of African tribal clan life in the Victorian era, but reading him makes me think that surely he must be accurate, so vividly does he draw the characters and action. In the hopes of not repeating my Masque of Africa thoughts, the book touches upon many important themes:
1. Does Christianity fulfill or go against native religions?
This debate has gone back almost to the beginning of Church history itself, and Achebe does not try and solve it. But he does a great job giving us the tension not only in different missionaries, but in the society itself. Is the paganism of the African tribes a foundation to build upon or a negative force to be supplanted? Or is it both/and instead of either/or?
Sometimes the reader sees the dignity and cohesiveness of tribal religion. The Africans understand religion far more than the average agnostic westerner. But just as often we see the terrible darkness and fear that the African religion produces. Achebe must be given tremendous credit for not flinching in this area.
2. Religion and Culture
Again, more than many westerners, Achebe understands the importance of religion, because once the religion is changed, the culture must as well. The missionaries quickly bring in education to the clans, as well as a different law system. How much of this must by default come with Christianity I can’t say, but surely, for example, education must come with Protestantism.
3. Africa as a Template for Europeans
In a controversial essay, Achebe called Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” at root a racist book. Though Conrad certainly took a strong anti-colonial stance, Achebe believed that for Conrad, Africa had no independent legitimate existence of its own to be taken seriously. Instead, Conrad, like the rest of his time, can’t help but view the world as their “blank slate” to work out their own issues. Achebe is too good a writer to paint things in stark black and white, but he does work this attitude into the story. Even when “doing good” the British tend to think of themselves on their own terms, rather than consider the Africans on their terms.
Things Fall Apart is well worth your time.