Sunteți pe pagina 1din 12

Sundeen 1

Jacob W. Sundeen Dr. Verena Theile English 271: Literary Analysis 14 December 2010 Things Fall Apart and the Fearful Okonkwo What does it mean to be a man? Does it mean that one can never show emotion because shedding a tear would show weakness and weakness is intolerable? Or does to be a man imply that one must display ones physical superiority over others to once again avoid that taboo word: weakness? These are the questions that Okonkwo, the main character of Achebes novel Things Fall Apart, wrestles with as he determines for himself what it means to be a man in Igbo society. Achebe creates a striking depiction of this African society that is dominated by masculine authority. But Okonkwo takes his societys ideas of masculinity a step further by completely annihilating all traces of the feminine qualities from his life. Okonkwo is truly a fearful man and one whose whole life is dominated by fear, the fear of failure and weakness (Achebe 10). In this way, Okonkwos greatest fear is of himself: fear that he might be deemed weak, weak like his father was. In Igbo culture, if one is weak, then one is agbala (10) which refers to someone that is either a man without a title or a woman. In his efforts to hide any traces of weakness, Okonkwo distorts both the masculine and the feminine, by keeping them rigidly apart and by the ferocity of his war on the feminine (Corley 205 206). By analyzing Okonkwos role in Things Fall Apart, one can see how his fear of weakness, failure, and feminine qualities of a person ultimately led to his destruction or, in accordance with the title of the novel, him falling apart.

Sundeen 2

The way in which Okonkwo defines what a man should be originates from everything that his father Unoka was not: courageous, hard-working, and successful. So in every way possible, Okonkwo is a complete antithesis to his weak father (Jua 200). This father-son relationship was not a healthy one and is best summed up as a whole within the opening chapter of the novel: He [Okonkwo] had no patience with unsuccessful men. He had had no patience with his father (Achebe 4). To Okonkwo, his father was a failure: a lazy man who wasted his money on foolish things such as alcohol and merriment and owed money to nearly everyone in the village. The poor and debt-ridden Unoka stands in stark contrast with the famous Okonkwo who is known throughout many Igbo villages for his wrestling prowess and courageous deeds in war. And while Unoka barely had enough money to bring food to the table for his family, Okonkwo owns an extensive property with a hut for each of his many wives. Unokas lack of success most likely derived from his laziness. Okonkwo still remembers the shame he experienced as a child when his father was told by the priestess Chika that his crops are failing because he is weak and that he should go home and work like a man (12). Unlike Okonkwo, who boasts of the men he has killed in battle with his machete, Unoka did not enjoy war and the violent aspects of life because he is in fact a coward and could not bear the sight of blood (5). What war and blood-letting is to Okonkwo is what music is to Unoka, for he was described as taking joy in playing the flute and making music and fellowship over a good feast. Unokas ability to express himself through music and fellowship shows an ability to show emotions that his son does not possess. More likely is that Okonkwo simply doesnt believe that these are qualities worth possessing because they are not qualities that define, at least in his terms, a man. Instead, inconsequential feelings dealing with ones emotions are purely feminine qualities that are not befitting of a man such as Okonkwo who defines himself solely through his

Sundeen 3

physical qualities because he believes that the only thing worth demonstrating [is] strength (18). His father is also said to be an agbala (10). It is of the utmost disgrace that a man should be referenced as such, so Okonkwo becomes ruled by one passion to hate everything that his father had loved. One of those things was gentleness and another was idleness (10). His father loved music, laughter, feasting, and peace; Okonkwo rejects all these things and becomes a stern, violent, and hard-working man who rules his family with a heavy hand (18), and in the end he becomes exactly what he wanted to be: a man nothing like his father. Unoka, the agbala (10), received dishonor in both life and death as he was denied first and second burial rights after his death, and his body was left to rot in the Evil Forest. After his fathers death, Okonkwo had no inheritance left behind for him and no legacy to continue, so he must fabricate a social context for his identity and values rather than simply assuming a system of references in relation to which he can define himself (Cobham 514). Okonkwo must lay the foundations for his future and determine his place in society, but the memory of his father forever haunts him: And indeed he was possessed by the fear of his fathers contemptible life and shameful death (Achebe 13). Okonkwos fear of becoming a failure like his father fuels his almost fanatical desire to constantly prove and reassert his manhood (Jua 202). It is this fear that puts Okonkwo not just at odds with his father but with his own society. Okonkwo is so terrified that he might display a trace of weakness that he develops what de Corley calls a hypermasculinity that threatens to upset the balance of gender values in Umuofia (Corley 205). Despite the Igbos already male-dominant society, Okonkwos views of masculine power comes into conflict with the Igbos traditional views of the feminine and masculine roles. Each gender plays an important role in Igbo society with the male who is strong and warlike and the female who is tender and supportive in times of adversity (Rhoads

Sundeen 4

65). However, what Okonkwo fails to see is that there is an important balance between the two genders that is fundamental to Igbo society. This balance of the genders is represented in a speech given to Okonkwo by his uncle Uchendo: Its true that a child belongs to its father. But when a father beats his child, it seeks sympathy in its mothers hut. A man belongs to his fatherland when things are good and life is sweet. But when there is sorrow and bitterness he finds refuge in his motherland. Your mother is there to protect you. (Achebe 78) Herein lays the most important difference between the two genders: gentleness. The mothers provide sympathy and compassion, traits that are not traditionally present in the male figures of Igbo society. However, that does not mean that this feminine trait is completely ignored by males, and we already know that Okonkwos father Unoka displayed this gentleness but so does Okonkwos friend Obierika. He displays open sympathy for Okonkwos predicament after his accidental killing of Ezeudus son, and he wonders why a man should suffer so grievously for an offence he had committed inadvertently (74). But for Okonkwo, who never showed any emotion open, unless it be the emotion of anger, sympathy does not find a place in his definition of a true man because to show affection was a sign of weakness, and weakness is only for agbala like his father (10-18). Okonkwos punishment for killing the son of Ezeudu is a forced seven-year exile to his Motherland, and upon returning to his Motherland, Okonkwo is confronted by Uchendu with a saying that seems to counter everything he stands for: Mother is Supreme. Uchendo asks Okonkwo to explain why the Mother is Supreme, and when Okonkwo fails to do so, Uchendo berates him for his ignorance in recognizing the significance of feminine principles in Igbo society. In fact, Okonkwo, who can only define masculinity in relation to what his father was not, is understandably out of his depth when asked to accept a notion that his

Sundeen 5

identity may also be formed by qualities represented by his mother (Cobham 519). Okonkwos lack of recognition for his mother outlines his primal flaw, for despite his many wives, children and titles, Okonkwo is still a child (Jua 202). Okonkwo cannot seem to understand that women play in an important role in society and seems to come to the conclusion that the woman therefore is worthless (201). This is evident by the reaction he has to the death of Ndulue and his wife Ozoemena: That is very strange indeed, said Okonkwo. They will put off Ndulues funeral until his wife has been buried. That is why the drum has not been beaten to tell Umuofia. It was always said that Ndulue and Ozoemena had one mind, said Obierika. I remember when I was a young boy there was a song about them. He could not do anything without telling her. I did not know that, said Okonkwo. I thought he was a strong man in his youth. He was indeed, said Ofoedu Okonkwo shook his head doubtfully. He led Umuofia to war in those days, said Obierika. (42) While Obierika and Ofoedu are able to recognize that Ndulue was able to be a strong man along with being respectful and sympathetic towards his wife at the same time, Okonkwo simply views Ndulues gentleness as weakness: Okonkwo sees tenderness as incompatible with masculinity, viewing marriage as yet another social situation in which a mans worth is measured by his ability to control others through superior physical strength (Cobham 514). The fact that Okonkwo asserts his authority solely through the display of physical might means that he cant possibly imagine a relationship where the husband actually takes the wifes opinion into consideration. Despite Okonkwos disapproval, the relationship between Ndulue and Ozoemena is evidence that there is a place in Igbo society for men and women to be equal, and Okonkwo

Sundeen 6

only continues to increase the disconnect between himself and his society by not acknowledging the significance of women. The importance of women in Igbo society is reinforced by the trial of the chronic wife-beater Uzowulu whose wife ran from their home for fear of her life. Igbo law traditionally states that a woman who runs away from her husband is punished accordingly, but since her life was in danger, Uzowulu is recognized for being at fault and is told that if he should recover from his madness and come in the proper way to beg his wife to return she will do so on the understanding that if he ever beats her again we shall cut off his genitals for him (Achebe 56). This time the woman is actually given power over her husband, and Diana Akers Rhoads comments that if the Igbos have not achieved the ideal balance of male and female, they do seek to limit a males abuse of his control over the female (66). Even if it is culturallyacceptable at times, Igbo society generally looks down upon wife-beating especially if it violates religious creed such as that of the Week of Peace. During this coveted week, it is deemed a high offense for a man to lay a hand on his wife no matter what the situation may be. Once again, one can see how the Igbos try to maintain that balance between the two genders by creating the Week of Peace in order to keep the mens masculinity in check. Yet the grave consequences for violating the Week of Peace doesnt stop Okonkwo, and he beats his wife regardless because he is not the kind of man to stop beating somebody half-way through, not even for fear of a goddess (Achebe 19). One should note that Achebe emphasizes goddess in this passage and not god. This shows Okonkwos complete defiance and rejection of anything feminine, and specifically in this case, he defies the earth goddess Ani. And why should Okonkwo, thrower of the Cat, be afraid of anything feminine even if its a goddess? However, Ani seems to command a great deal of respect from the other clansmen. During the trial of Uzowulu, the men would literally bow down and touch the earth as a sign of submission (55) to the goddess Ani, who

Sundeen 7

acts as a counterbalance to male strength (Rhoads 66) in Igbo culture. This action highlights the importance of the power that even the feminine has in Igbo culture, and coincidentally, Ani is the deity Okonkwo has most often offended and she is responsible for his exile (Cobham 520). Nearly every offense that Okonkwo has committed has been one that insults the goddess Ani, and after he breaks the sanctity of the Week of Peace, the Umuofia priest rebukes his actions for they couldve brought about the destruction of the clan. Okonkwo is truly repentant for his actions, but he does not show it because he is not the kind of man to go about telling his neighbors that he was in error (Achebe 20). Admitting to fault, or failure, would put him on the same level as his father and that would mean for Okonkwo that he was weak. All of these clashes with culture that Okonkwo experiences directly stem from his fear of weakness and the fear of being like his father. However, the system of values that Okonkwo has developed for himself proves to come into conflict with more than just his society. Okonkwo has developed into a man wholly different from his father in every way possible and whose values of masculinity have set him apart from the rest of his society. Specifically, his fear of weakness leads him to believe that true masculinity is synonymous with the ability to do difficult, even distasteful jobs without flinching (Cobham 514). This includes everything from felling foes with his machete, laboring in the fields, and even taking the life of Ikemefuna. The young boy Ikemefuna was given to Umuofia as a peace offering and left in the care of Okonkwo. Eventually, the boy earns the admiration and respect of nearly everyone in the village and, most notably, Okonkwo and his son Nwoye. In fact, Okonkwo despised his actual son because he reminded him of his lazy-good-for-nothing father, and Ikemefuna, who even called Okonkwo father, ended up becoming more of a son to Okonkwo than Nwoye ever was.

Sundeen 8

Despite the bond that had grown between Okonkwo and Ikemefuna, Okonkwo still follows the Oracles orders and murders his son out of fear that he would show weakness: As the man who had cleared his throat drew up and raised his matchet, Okonkwo looked away. He heard the blow. The pot fell and broke in the sand. He heard Ikemefuna cry, My father, they have killed me! as he ran towards him. Dazed with fear, Okonkwo drew his matchet and cut him down. He was afraid of being thought weak. (Achebe 38) The murder of Ikemefuna is described by Rhonda Cobham as the pivotal moment that sets in motion a chain of events which ultimately led to his [Okonkwos] downfall (514). Okonkwo seems to be in constant denial of the gravity of the situation; referring to the killing as his latest show of manliness (Achebe 40) and even jostling Obierika for his absence at the event. Okonwo tells Obierika that his reasons for killing Ikemefuna were simply because the Oracle commanded it and someone had to go through with it, but Obierika rebuttals that Okonkwos action will anger the goddess Ani: It is the kind of action for which the goddess wipes out whole families (41). In effect, Okonkwos harshness becomes sacrilege (Rhoads 66). Of course, this fear of Ani is one that Okonwko does not share, and his continued defilement of Anis creed puts him at further odds with the people around him. Nwoye experiences great anguish at the death of the boy who had become a close companion of his, and thus he becomes further separated from his father. Nwoye displays the same gentleness that his grandfather Unoka had possessed, and he simply cannot accept the harshness of Okonkwo. Similarly, Okonkwo views his sons gentleness as the same weakness that plagued his father and for this he hates his son. In fact, the relationship between Nwoye and Okonkwo, which undergoes a metamorphosis once the former realizes the latters part in Ikemefunas death, parallels and adumbrates Okonkwos denial of his

Sundeen 9

effeminate father (Jua 202). Okonkwo is unable to connect with his son because his son has embraced feminine qualities that he himself has rejected. Just as Unoka was possessed by the joy of music, Nwoye is enamored by poetry: the poetry of the stories that his mother used to tell him and the poetry of the Christian religion. Okonkwo tells him masculine stories of violence and bloodshed and Nwoye knew that it was right to be masculine and to be violent, but somehow he still preferred the stories that his mother used to tell (Achebe 33). Nwoye is forced to lie to his father and tell him that he prefers his fathers stories in order to stop Okonkwo from beating him. What Okonkwo essentially creates in Nwoye is a suffocated longing for the beautiful Igbo myths which his mother used to tell him (Dannenberg 178), so when the Christians come to convert the Igbos, it is not the mad logic of the Trinity that captivated him [Nwoye]. He did not understand it. It was the poetry of the new religion, something he felt in the marrow (85). In this poetry, Nwoye finds the promise of brotherhood (Rhoads 69); a culture that will accept him for who he is unlike the Igbo society in which he no longer has a place anymore. And it is at this point that the split between Okonkwo and his son reaches its completion: the gentle Nwoye converts to Christianity and leaves the Igbo society behind while Okonkwo grows increasingly hostile towards the Christians who are encroaching upon his culture. Okonkwos only solution for dealing with the Christians is violence as it is for many other situations, and the downfall of Okonkwo is itself due to his reliance and belief in narratives of honour and violence (Dannenberg 178). These masculine characteristics of honor and violence prove to be intertwined with Okonkwos decision to kill Ikemefuna, and these two ideas continue to fuel his desire for blood. He makes claims that the people massacred at Abame were cowards for not fighting back, and he stresses to the rest of Umuofia that unless they raise arms against the Christians they, too, will perish. Unlike Obierika, Okonkwo does not sympathize with the

Sundeen 10

victims of the massacre, but instead only sees weakness in the people of Abame. However, Okonkwos values of courage and masculinity are not as widely shared as he once thought them to be. Thus Okonkwo becomes alienated in his own society, and so 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 (Achebe 104). Unfortunately for Okonkwo, it is not his clan that is falling apart but he himself. Okonkwo lived his whole life in fear: fear of becoming like his father, fear of being thought of as weak, and this fear led him to kill a son he truly loved and to never accept another son that he never got the chance to love. Okonkwo was so fixated on becoming the antithesis to his father that he forgot to appreciate the importance of a son and the impact one can have in a fathers life. Instead, Nwoye was thrown to the side because he reminded Oknonkwo too much of his weak father. Okonkwo inability to recognize the significance of why the Mother is Supreme (77) caused him to become lost in a society that he thought was in line with his values, but his views on masculinity were always somewhat disconnected from the rest of his clan. Okonkwos final act of violence, the beheading of the court messenger, cements his fate: Okonkwo finally decides that his clansmen no longer share his values and that to be a man on their terms would be a form of living death (Cobham 515). In Okonkwos mind, he cannot be a true man in this society any longer, and he has no choice but to kill himself. Okonkwos true tragic flaw is that he was unable to see past his own strict doctrine of masculinity, and this causes him to underestimate the flexibility and comprehensiveness of the clans values (Cobham 515). This is evident by the clans willingness to find a loophole around their traditional custom that prevents them from burying a suicide victim like Okonkwos whose body is now deemed evil, and they do this by paying the Commissioner and his men to take down Okonkwos body

Sundeen 11

and bury it for them. The Igbo clan truly cares for Okonwo, for just as Obierika honored Ndulue as a great man, even though he kept himself on equal terms with a woman, so is Okonkwo honored in death as one of the greatest men in Umuofia (Achebe 117). Obierika is immensely shaken by the tragic fate of his friend, and in a slight twist of irony, through his feminine qualities of grief and sympathy, Okonkwos memory is allowed to live on through the values that he himself tried so hard to destroy.

Sundeen 12

Works Cited Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart: A Norton Critical Edition. 1st ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2009. Cobham, Rhonda. Problems of Gender and History in the Teaching of Things Fall Apart. Things Fall Apart: A Norton Critical Edition. 1st ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2009. Print. Corley, de. Conjuncture, Hypermasculinity, and Disavowal in Things Fall Apart. Interventions: The International Journal of Postcolonial Studies 11 (2009): 203 210. EBSCO MegaFILE. EBSCO. Web. 22 Nov. 2010. Dannenberg, Hilary. The Many Voices of Things Fall Apart. Interventions: The International Journal of Postcolonial Studies 11 (2009): 176 179. EBSCO MegaFILE. EBSCO. Web. 22 Nov. 2010. Jua, Roselyne M. Things Fall Apart and Achebes Search for Manhood. Interventions: The International Journal of Postcolonial Studies 11 (2009): 199 202. EBSCO MegaFILE. EBSCO. Web. 22 Nov. 2010. Rhoads, Diana Akers. Culture in Chinua Achebes Things Fall Apart. African Studies Review. 36 (1993): 61 72. JSTOR. Web. 22 Nov. 2010.