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Analysis of Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

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Things Fall Apart

Important Quotations Explained

Turning and turning in the widening gyre The falcon cannot hear the falconer; Things fall apart; the center cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.

Explanation for Quotation 1 >>

Achebe uses this opening stanza of William Butler Yeats’s poem “The Second Coming,” from which the title of the novel is taken, as an epigraph to the novel. In invoking these lines, Achebe hints at the chaos that arises when a system collapses. That “the center cannot hold” is an ironic reference to both the imminent collapse of the African tribal system, threatened by the rise of imperialist bureaucracies, and the imminent disintegration of the British Empire. Achebe, writing in 1959, had the benefit of retrospection in depicting Nigerian society and British colonialism in the 1890s.

Yet Achebe’s allusion is not simply political, nor is it ironic on only one level. Yeats’s poem is about the Second Coming, a return and revelation of sorts. In Things Fall Apart, this revelation refers to the advent of the Christian missionaries (and the alleged revelation of their teachings), further satirizing their supposed benevolence in converting the Igbo. For an agricultural society accustomed to a series of cycles, including that of the locusts, the notion of return would be quite credible and familiar.

The hyperbolic and even contradictory nature of the passage’s language suggests the inability of humankind to thwart this collapse. “Mere anarchy” is an oxymoron in a sense, since the definition of anarchy implies an undeniably potent level of radicalism. The abstraction in the language makes the poem’s ideas universal: by referring to “[t]hings” falling apart as opposed to specifying what those collapsing or disintegrating things are, Yeats (and Achebe) leaves his words open to a greater range of...

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