In the novel by Chinua Achebe, “Things Fall Apart", the reader encounters the Igbo people at a watershed moment in their history and culture. The incursion of the colonizing force is changing or threatening to change almost every aspect of their society: religion, family structure, gender roles and relations, and trade, to name just a few. In “Things Fall Apart", one recognizes just how much the representation by Achebe of Igbo society in “Things Fall Apart” is changing because women, who were typically restricted to the home and who possessed little decision-making power prior to colonialism, suddenly find themselves agents of important social exchanges through the roles they play in the trade that occurs in the market, as well as in the production of the crops that are sold at market.
The novel, “Things Fall Apart" is, at its heart, a novel about a rapidly changing culture. Because of the quick introduction of new ideas in “Things Fall Apart" from outsiders, nearly every aspect of Igbo culture begins to change, including, rather predictably, the nature of gender relationships. Before the introduction of new cultural influences in “Things Fall Apart" the gender roles were quite standardized as was evidenced both by the interactions of Okonkwo and his wives and other Igbo men and women in “Things Fall Apart”. It is clear that women were given certain responsibilities and these were not mutable aspects of Igbo culture but were sedentary cultural norms. With new ideas from outside, however, the roles of women in “Things Fall Apart" and Igbo culture began to shift, bringing larger cultural implications.
For example, one of the rapid cultural changes that takes place in Igbo society is apparent in terms of the harvesting of crops. While they still do not harvest yams, “a man’s crop" (Achebe 22), and symbol of “manliness…[and] great[ness] (Achebe 33), the “coco-yams, beans and cassava" (Achebe 22) become increasingly important to the Igbo and their trade, despite men’s clinging to the yam as an important symbol of the Igbo culture. As the result of their position in the enterprise of trading, women had more direct contact with foreigners than did the men. As this contact and their selling success increased, so too did women’s influence in society and their boldness in asserting themselves and their ideas and opinions to the powerful male elders who held traditional decision-making power.
For the men in “Things Fall Apart", such a transition represented a particular threat. The main character and, it is worth mentioning, very gender-role oriented male, Okonkwo, for instance, reflected on the colonial enterprise and remarked that the white man “has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart" (Achebe 124-125). Women’s growing power, conferred upon them through their status acquired in trading, contested the historical notions of gender relations, summarized in the idea that, as stated in one of the important quotes from “Things Fall Apart” by Chinua Achebe that says, “No matter how prosperous a man was, if he was unable to rule his women and his children (and especially his women) he was not really a man" (Achebe 45). Trade, then, and women’s role in this vital activity of Igbo society, changed gender dynamics, family relations, and the very concepts upon which Igbo culture was founded.
Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. New York: Anchor, 1994.