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“Things Fall Apart” most often refers to a quote from William Butler Yeats’ poem, “The Second Coming,” published in 1920. It also refers to the novel of the same name written by Nigerian writer, Chinua Achebe, and published in 1958. Understanding what the phrase means is easier when viewed in context of a greater sampling of the poem: “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold:/Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”
“The Second Coming” is partly Yeats’ vision of the coming end of Christianity, essentially the end of a 2,000-year era. People may quote the line to express their concerns about rising violence in the world, to reference the poem, or to suggest the world is bathed in anarchy.
However, to Yeats, this is “mere” anarchy, suggesting almost a laissez-faire attitude. "Things Fall Apart" results in anarchy that cannot be stopped. There is a world-weariness implied in “mere” that suggests the unstoppable force of change.
Achebe’s great work, Things Fall Apart is about the change of Nigerian society when it comes into collision with European society. One of the recurring themes of the novel is the characters’ and the author’s perceptions that destiny is often predetermined with chaotic results. As well, the Nigerians lose their sense of center as varied new opinions and/or laws influence the Igbo society. Eventually the Igbo society will come to a virtual end.
Critics argue that Achebe chooses the title in specific reference to the poem. However, Achebe is not discussing the death of Christianity, but rather the chaos brought into the Igbo society by European/Christian incursion.
The final lines of “The Second Coming” suggest the birth of the anti-Christ. “What rough beast, its hours come round at last/Slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?” To Yeats, who viewed the world in 2,000-year segments, this is not entirely negative in context. It rather expresses imagination about what the new world will consist of, and concludes that it will perhaps be animalistic or cruel, hence the rough beast.
For Achebe, the novel concludes with the end of the Igbo society, and the death of the main character. In the face of the chaos caused by the incursion of Christianity, Okonkwo becomes a murderer and then hangs himself. His world has literally fallen apart, and the rough beast that rears its head in Nigerian society is not anti-Christian, but specifically Christian. Thus, the reference to a European poem in Things Fall Apart can be viewed as irony.