From its title and synopsis, “Things Fall Apart” looks to be the usual story of white men swiftly conquering an African society by surprise. Chinua Achebe’s actual story was not the case. I found it interesting that Achebe portrayed colonialism as a gradual, multi-dimensional process rather than a sudden defeat. This process can be seen as Achebe progressively introduces missionary characters addressed as “Mr.,” a Western title.
The first “Mr.” to appear in the book is a Mr. Kiaga, an African convert from a distant clan who leads the Christian mission in Mbanta. Under the new Christian faith, osu, or outcasts, were suddenly seen as equals. This confuses both the villagers and us readers, especially with the display of an African man as a main missionary figure.
After Okonkwo’s return to Umuofia, we encounter Mr. Brown, a white missionary. His mission stresses inclusiveness and equality, and under his supervision, Christianity becomes a safe haven and opportunity for the villagers previously punished or ostracized by the clan’s traditions. The prospect of social elevation and abolishment of customs such as mutilating dead children and leaving twins to die puts colonialism in a positive light.
However, Achebe’s stance on colonialism becomes clear when Mr. Brown is replaced by another white missionary named Mr. Smith. Achebe describes this “Mr.” as one who “saw things in black and white. And black was evil.” (184) This portrayal of the European missionary is what we as readers expected from the beginning. Unlike Mr. Brown, Mr. Smith is the foreigner who is highly critical of the Ibo people’s past traditions.
White missionaries do eventually beat down the traditions and beliefs of the Umuofia clan, but not without inner conflict among the clan members. Okonkwo, the protagonist who is difficult to sympathize with, angrily defends his clan’s traditions. Conversely, the “misters,” who range from benevolent to brutal, show the spread of Christianity as both a positive and negative force. Ultimately, I believe that Achebe’s goal was not to show how unfair the colonial force was. Instead, he stressed the internal conflict and made readers feel as the villagers did: torn between the promise of a new system and the ruthless destruction of their cultural tradition.