Achebe sets an ominous tone in the dark of the night: "Darkness held a vague terror for these people, even the bravest among them. Children were warned not to whistle at night for fear of evil spirits. Dangerous animals became even more sinister and uncanny in the dark. A snake was never called by its name at night, because it would hear. It was called a string. And so on this particular night as the crier's voice was gradually swallowed up in the distance, silence returned to the world, a vibrant silence made more intense by the universal trill of a million million insects."
Okonkwo, a wealthy farmer and a great wrestler, lives in Umuofia, a clan feared by all its neighbours. He lives by the traditions of the clan, and has a strong mindset on how things should be done. This stems from the troubled life of his father Unoka, an ill-fated man who died heavily in debt: "With a father like Unoka, Okonkwo did not have the start in life which many young men had. He neither inherited a barn nor a title, nor even a young wife. But in spite of these disadvantages, he had begun even in his father's lifetime to lay the foundations of a prosperous future. It was slow and painful. But he threw himself into it like one possessed. And indeed he was possessed by the fear of his father's contemptible life and shameful death."
There are parts that are difficult to read, difficult for me and perhaps most westernized readers to truly comprehend. The superstitions and the clan's stringent belief in evil spirits for example are intriguing. And what I found quite shocking was a medicine man's treatment of a dead child, believed to be "one of those wicked children who, when they died, entered their mothers' wombs to be born again." Of course, conversely, we would seem strange and baffling to them too.
But Achebe sets this scene in order for us to understand what happens when the white men arrive. Okonkwo breaks a custom of the clan, and he and his family are sent away for seven years. In the years of his exile, there is much change in his village. Missionaries have built a church there, converting some of the clan - among whom is Okonkwo's son - and bringing their ways of government with them. And this eventually breaks Okonkwo's spirit:
"Okonkwo was deeply grieved. And it was not just a personal grief. He mourned for the clan, which he saw breaking up and falling apart, and he mourned for the warlike men of Umuofia, who had so unaccountably become soft like women."