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What is the Origin of the Term "Things Fall Apart"?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 23, 2024
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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.

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Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Language & Humanities contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By discographer — On Nov 09, 2011

Interesting article and comments here. I personally think that 'Things Fall Apart' is a suitable title and way to some up the end of the world. And not just in Christianity but in the other Abrahamic religions as well.

I'm interested in religious texts and theories and have read a lot about how the end of the world is described in Christianity, Judaism and Islam. It does very much describe a world where everything is falling apart. Many texts and stories talk about how there will be chaos, famine and war as the world nears it's end.

The anti-Christ is said to arrive at this time and will present the last test to humanity, until the arrival of Christ and the official end of life on earth. Texts describe that when everything ends, the whole universe will emerge and become flattened.

So both physically and contextually, the end of the world is a complete falling apart. I think William Butler couldn't have selected a better title for his poem.

By fify — On Nov 09, 2011

The origin of this phrase was definitely much more pessimistic than how it is generally used today. I have not read any of the poems or 'Things Fall Apart' books but I had not expected the phrase to mean 'the end of the world' literally in them.

I use this phrase myself when negative events take place back to back and when something is not succeeding as I expected. For example, I organize events and when multiple things go wrong with an event, I tend to say 'things are falling apart.' It's definitely not as literal and extreme as the phrase was used by these authors and poets.

By JimmyT — On Nov 08, 2011

@jmc88 - Not going to lie that is an interesting theory, but I wonder if that could simply just be conjecture as opposed to what other people see with his title.

I have not read his book either, but I would think that if he were to choose a title of his book he would not want to pick something that is seen as negative to something such Christianity and alienate people due to it.

I find it plausible that it was simply part of his thesis in his book and any connection is simply coincidental. I find the term "things fall apart" to be a rather simply title and that it is entirely plausible that he did not even know about poem, but simply picked the same three worded title.

By jcraig — On Nov 08, 2011

@jmc88 - I find that it could be possible that Achebe had your thought in mind, but he also simply used the term "things fall apart" because it was a rather common term and sounded somewhat clever.

Things like this happen all the time and it is not at all unusual to misconstrue the message that the author is sending in the title. I personally find the title of his book and its connection to the poem to be a major stretch of the imagination and is simply a case of looking into something too much.

Another possibility occurs when you look at the topic he talks about. I have not read his book but it seems fairly provocative. By adding a title that reminds people of a poem that talks about the fall of Christianity, it makes it even more controversial and makes it more well known. This could have been his reason for choosing the title and it could also be his take on the term.

By jmc88 — On Nov 07, 2011

@kentuckycat - I would have to agree with you completely on that. A man like Achebe seems like someone that would be very big on culture of a particular group of people and understands that culture gives a person their identity. However, once one loses culture they lose their heritage and they thus turn into a different person.

Losing identity can occur when an entire group of people is either forced into a different area or when they want to live in an area so bad they are willing to drop someone their old customs for the customs of their adopted country. This happens all the time when someone leaves their homeland and most of the time they do not lose it completely, but it entirely depends on what the culture of their homeland is.

Say you have a nomadic, tribe like people that are ranchers and farmers in Central Africa. If they move to an urbanized area like in Europe that is completely foreign of them, but they want to live there, they are not going to continue these customs and will simply drop them for the better life they have available. This is when "things fall apart" in regards to a group of people completely losing their culture.

By kentuckycat — On Nov 06, 2011

I would like to connect something about the fall of Christianity with Chinua Achebe's book, but I feel like it is simply a stretch of the imagination all due to the title he selected.

The book "Things Fall Apart" concerns the immersion of a foreign group of people into society and can simply be used as an example of any type of foreign culture that is immersed into another society.

There was no way that the Igbo society could last in an area that was completely different than theirs. The Igbo were the minority and if they were to live in such a society they had to immerse themselves in that particular society.

I think that when he uses the term "things fall apart" he means that eventually there is absolutely no way that the Igbo can maintain their culture in a foreign area and they eventually shed their identity for a new one in their adoptive area.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Language & Humanities contributor,...
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