Things Fall Apart: The Narrator’s Voice

Things Fall Apart: The Narrator’s Voice
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The “voice” of the narrator plays animportant part of the style by which Chinua Achebe conveys the central message of Things Fall Apart – the gradual disappearance of the Igbo culture and way of life, and the intrusion of the Western lifestyle which eventually and completely displaces it. The narrator’s tone, style and point of view are instrumental in effectively directing the reader’s attention and sympathies as the plot develops.

First of all, Achebe chooses for the narrator to be a third person, rather than adopt the person of one of the characters (thus referring to the story’s characters as “he” or “she” rather than “I” or “me”). Through this Achebe intentionally renders the narrative voice as that of the village storyteller, adopting the traditional African storytelling style. (Scafe, 2002 p. 121) This is suggested by the “ordinary, everyday quality of the language” by which the narrator describes daily Igbo life.

The choice of the third person perspective was also important to establish the understated style by which the author told of events and characters, without delving into the inner workings of the characters’ minds. Prof. Irele (2000) points to the fact that even at the point of the story where the hero Okonkwo experiences his greatest mental turmoil (his killing of Ikemefuna, the boy who called him father), “we are provided with hardly any insight into the happening within his troubled soul.” Irele believes that the author intentionally narrows the gaze of the reader, in order to emphasize the narrative’s description of Okonkwo: “Okonkwo was a man of action, not of thought.” (Things Fall Apart, 1996, p. 48) The author also wishes to convey that Okonkwo’s qualifying characteristics have to do with his masculine physicality, and not his psychological depth. It will be recalled that he looked down at his father for failing to convey that very masculinity (i.e., he was likened to a woman) due to his artistic preoccupations. (Irele, 2000)

The perspective, or rather perspectives, assumed by the narrator is an interesting aspect of the author’s style. This is because there is a gradual shift in the story in the point of view of the narrator that influences the way the reader gains insight into the events unfolding. The story begins with the narrative voice adopting the viewpoint of Okonkwo at the beginning of the story, describing his shame due to his father’s lack of status. It progresses to adapt the viewpoint of the community as the narrator describes the practices and social code of behaviour of Igbo tribesmen when dealing with each other (the ritual of the kola nut, the status and honor of owning titles, the use of “sacrifice” in the conveying of children and women as appeasement for wrong done, and so forth). Finally, towards the end the narrator relates the viewpoint of the District Commissioner, the local leader of the white government, as he contemplates on how the events that have transpired would make good material for his book. Carroll (1980, p. 34) views this as reflective of the gradual change from the outdated past to the modern present.

Some critics have the opinion that the book has two narrators. The first narrator takes the traditionalist/communal African (Igbo) perspective, and dominates the first two-thirds of the book. The final one-third is occupied by the narrator who takes the modern/individual point of view. Wright (1991, p. 78) points out that in the last one-third of the book, the narrator expresses the tribe’s embarrassment at Okonkwo’s recklessness and violation of tradition, which is no the tone of the first two-thirds, which regarded Okonkwo as a man of stature in the village.

Overall, the narrator’s non-judgmental, detached tone nevertheless conveys the intention of the author to highlight the gradual change in the African community and way of life that colonization has imposed. It neither judges nor advocates; it merely narrates the course of events. In so doing, it plays a powerful role in allowing the readers to arrive at their own insights on the irreversible demise of a way of life.

Carroll, David Chinua Achebe 2nd ed. New York: St. Martins Press, 1980, cited in Western Michigan University. 2001
Irele, F A 2000, “The Crisis of Cultural Memory in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart 4(3):1. Available 15 June 2009 from
Scafe, S 2002, “’Wherever Something Stands, Something Else Will Stand Beside It’: ambivalence in Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and Arrow of God”, Changing English, vol. 9, no. 2.
“Things Fall Apart” 2001, Western Michigan University. Available 15 June 2009 from
Wright, Derek “Things Standing Together: a Retrospect on Things Fall Apart” in Chinua Achebe: A Celebration Oxford: Heinemann 1991, cited in Western Michigan University, 2001