The Complexity of Igbo Society
Chinua Achebe has said that this is one of his main themes in the book. He provides detailed descriptions of the legal codes and practices, the marriage customs and familial codes, community leadership and laws, and the religious beliefs of the Igbo people. The book takes great pains to dramatize the complexity of Igbo culture and the value these cultural mechanisms have for the people. Rather than being “primitives” who lack culture, Achebe shows that they are a highly developed society. This theme is developed in order to demonstrate that colonial powers destroyed complex societies by assuming they were simple and primitive.
The Clash of Cultures
Achebe wrote the novel with the recognition that he is an African with a western education. He shows how the clash of cultures cuts both ways. The white missionaries misunderstand African culture and see it as simplistic and primitive. The Africans see the white missionaries as foolish. These misunderstandings perpetuated the conflicts and violence that erupts when cultures collide. Even though it was the colonial powers who exerted their influence, often violently, over the Igbo, the Igbo also misperceive the white missionaries as just as ignorant and underestimate them.
The project of European powers in Africa and other parts of the world was one of conquest and destruction of cultures. This happened as colonial powers saw themselves as benevolent civilizers who brought cultures to parts of the world which did not have culture. They were able to destroy these cultures and commit acts of genocide because they justified their crimes with religion and the idea that their civilization was the only civilization.
The conflicts in the novel demonstrate how the white missionaries often see the Igbo as child-like and in need of the civilizing influence of Christianity and western law. When in fact, the Igbo are in full possession of their own religion and legal processes. The violence in the end is the result of colonial adventures which were doomed to violence from the outset. Achebe’s novel dramatizes the way this colonial project unfolds as “things fall apart.”