Things Fall Apart follows the life of Okonkwo, an Igbo man living in a traditional Nigerian village at the time of European colonization.  Okonkwo is a respected man with many achievements within his community,  including wrestling, farming, and a high status. He achieved this status through overemphasis of strength, and an obsessive goal of avoiding  the weakness that crippled his father. Throughout the novel, Igbo culture and traditions are contrasted with European lifestyle. Chinua Achebe first tells the story of Okonkwo's fame in beating Amalinze the Cat in a wrestling match which gains him the status of greatest wrestler from Umuofia to Mbaino.  Okonkwo's family is then introduced along with the customs of the Igbo culture: kola nut, palm-wine, the warrior mentality, and yams.  Okonkwo is disappointed with his son Nwoye, who seems to reflect the weakness that Okonkwo tries so hard to avoid. The reader learns that instead of going to war, the village takes a payment of a boy and girl from the opposing village.  The boy, Ikemefuna, comes to live with Okonwo in Umuofia.  He becomes part of the family and even calls Okonkwo "father." Okonkwo grows to care for Ikemefuna, who reflects more of Okonwo's strength. However, Okonkwo refuses to show a feminine emotion such as compassion.  Eventually  the earth goddess demands Ikemefuna's blood, and in result, Okonkwo aids in killing him. 

During the week of peace, Okonkwo breaks the sacred vow of peace by beating his wife Ojiugo. Although Okonkwo shows repentance, his community cannot forgive him. This is the beginning of the downward spiral leading to his exile. 

When Okonkwo attends a funeral, he accidentally fires his gun, killing the dead man's son. The crime is considered as a "woman-crime" because it was accidental and irresponsible, rather than a crime that was intentional and valiant. As a result, Okonkwo is exiled for three years. Whilst he resides in the forest, Okonkwo continues to grow the yams he is known for. He then hears of colonization happening in his village, and wants to take action. His clansmen begin to follow the teachings of the missionaries. This includes Okonkwo's son Nwoye. Okonkwo loses hope in his culture and, as a result, hangs himself. His best friend finds him and is forced to allow the colonizers to bury him as a sign of further exile.