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Okonkwo Character Analysis Things fall Apart

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Okonkwo In Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe tells the masterful story of an Igbo farmer living in Nigeria in the nineteenth century. Through physical strength, determination, and personal achievement, Achebe’s main character, Okonkwo, has risen to a prominent position in his clan. He is projected as a heroic figure and a wrestler who is constantly at war with others. In his tribe he is both feared and honoured, his world consisted of “nine villages and beyond” from Umuofia to Mbaino, where he is known to have brought “honour to his tribe by throwing the

Amalinze cat”. In his society,” “He was a wealthy farmer and hadtwo barns full of yams, and had just married his third wife. To crown it all he had taken two titles and had shown incredible prowess in two intertribal wars”. He was a self-made man who passed through a modest childhood to become a prosperous and respected leader. He was obsessed with his father, Unoka’s failure. He rejects everything for which he believes his father stood. Unoka was idle, poor, profligate, cowardly, gentle, and interested in music to cultivating crops. Okonkwo was determined to prove imself industrious, ”Lest he should be found to resemble his father”. “Okonkwo was ruled by one passion-to hate everything his father, Unoka had loved “. It was his need to to live down the shame of his father that compels him to an excessive adherence of the social code. Okonkwo rules his family with an iron fist. His family was all of three wives and eight children. Okonkwo treats his members of the family harshly as well. “His wives, especially the youngest, lived in perpetual fear of his fiery temper, and so did his little children”. Okonkwo beats his wives and shouts at his children even hen he is well aware that they are innocent. He is even willing to break the rules of the clan to prove his authority. During the Week of Peace, when clan members are not allowed to quarrel, Okonkwo beats his wife harshly. A priest warns Okonkwo that breaking the tradition “can ruin the whole clan”. Still, Okonkwo struggles with his fear that any sign of weakness will cause him to lose control of his wives and children. Although, he felt inward affection, he never portrayed them to anyone. He instead isolated himself by exhibiting anger through violent, stubborn, and irrational behaviour.

He demands that his family work long hours despite their age or limited physical stamina. But he is at constant conflict with his emotions. Okonkwo is afraid to express positive emotions. He believes that “affection was a sign of weakness; the only thing worth demonstrating was strength”. When the Oracle decides that Ikemefuna,a boy who lives with Okonkwo’s family,is to be killed ,he delivers a deadly blow even though the elders had warned him against involvement. In building his story, however, Achebe is careful to hint at a softer side to his main character. After Ikemefuna’s death,

Okonkwo is unable to eat or sleep for several days and succumbs to a deep depression. Again, when Okonkwo’s daughter falls ill, Okonkwo’s compassion is made apparent as he runs to Ezinma’s hut to care for her. Later, when the same daughter is taken away by a priestess, Okonkwo secretly spends the night worrying about the girl and comforting his wife by waiting beside her for the daughter’s return. Unfortunately, these emotions and acts of compassion are private, shared only among select members of the family. Okonkwo was impulsive; he acts before he thinks. Although he is a superior haracter-his equation of manliness with rashness, anger and violence brings out his own destruction. Though he is ambitious his ill-temper and uncontrollable flaw keeps him away from greatness. His unrestrained and indomitable anger does him more harm. Eventually, Christianity is brought into Umuofia, which has led to the advent of a new religion and the creation of new ideas. The religion spreads up the social ladder and Nwoye, is eventually claimed by it. Nwoye alienates himself because of his father’s harshness and severity of his methods. He becomes a part of what

Okonkwo wanted to destroy the most. He was resistant to change and wanted to preserve the culture and heritage of his clan and his ancestors. He felt that this advent was changing the Igbo culture and they were changes that required compromise and accommodation- two qualities he found absolutely intolerable. He was a traditional man and not open to the contemporary ideas of the new mordernising world. He was too proud and inflexible; he clung to the time- honoured beliefs and mourns the lives and ways of the past. Anger begets fear begets power. Power is easily taken away with changing times.

Because Okonkwo did not realize it, he wasn’t able to forfeit. If fears are the seed of destruction, the arrival of colonialism was the fertile soil. When Okonkwo was allowed to return to his fatherland after seven long years, he finds the presence of the white men had changed the attitude of a once proud and war like village. With the British missionaries and officer’s influence of Christianity, Okonkwo’s initial reaction was to arm the clan against them and drive them out of Igbo. It is this violent resistance that seals Okonkwo’s fate. When a messenger of the

British government attempts to break up a meeting of villagers, Okonkwo chops off the man’s head in hopes that the clan will follow his lead . However, the clan is stunned by Okonkwo’s brutality, and Okonkwo faces his shame alone. He realizes that none of them support him and that he can’t save his village from the British colonists. Okonkwo is defeated. He commits suicide, a shameful and disgraceful death like his father’s. The Igbo culture had made Okonkwo a hero, but the Igbo culture changed with the coming of the British Colonisers. Okonkwo, a hero, would rather die than be umiliated by his enemies and by committing suicide Okonkwo prevented the European Colonisers from getting revenge. Aristotle’s statement, “Man, when perfect, is the best of animals, but, when separated from law and justice, he is the worst of all”, embodies the rise and fall of Okonkwo in Chinua Achebe’s novel. Okonkwo, like many tragic heroes before him, maybe a hero but his tragic flaw prevents him from achieving true greatness as a human being. Okonkwo appears to be the typical tragic hero—a man of greatness brought down by a flaw in his character and by unbeatable fate.

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The lack of self-discovery and of moral resolution at the end cast uncertainty as to whether his character is really a tragic hero, in the classical meaning, or merely an unfortunate victim of circumstance. Mankind has many different faces. Although fear and anger are reactions that all men have, if left unchecked, they will consume all one has worked for and ultimately destroy everything that one holds dear. Because of that, before actions are taken, much consideration should be taken to make sure that personal flaws as well as flaws in society do not interfere with one’s judgement.

Author: Brandon Johnson

in Things Fall Apart

Okonkwo Character Analysis Things fall Apart

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Inaugural Edition, December 2008

ENL 258: Best Essays in Literary Analysis

1st Place Winner

Change is Bad: Okonkwo’s Resistance to Change in Things Fall Apart

Lauryn Nosek

The character of Okonkwo in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart was driven by fear, a fear of change and losing his self-worth. He needed the village of Umuofia, his home, to remain untouched by time and progress because its system and structure were the measures by which he assigned worth and meaning in his own life. Okonkwo required this external order because of his childhood and a strained relationship with his father, which was also the root of his fears and subsequent drive for success. When the structure of Umuofia changed, as happens in society, Okonkwo was unable to adapt his methods of self-evaluation and ways of functioning in the world; the life he was determined to live could not survive a new environment and collapsed around him.

From an early age, Okonkwo was ashamed of his father, Unoka, who was unable even to feed his family. The unpredictability of receiving enough food at a young age was enough to inspire fear and embarrassment in Okonkwo who associated this embarrassment with his father and was given further justification for these feelings when he went out into Umuofia, discovering that the other villagers held similar opinions of Unoka. When he was old enough, Okonkwo began farming his own yams because “he had to support his mother and two sisters […] And supporting his mother also meant supporting his father” (25). Okonkwo’s self-reliance was admired, valued in the community where “age was respected […] but achievement was revered” (12); this admiration gave him feelings of security, and the respect of his peers pushed him towards greater self-respect, distancing him from his father. The security and respect became related in his mind as he viewed his acceptance in the community as his life’s goal and Okonkwo stretched it to the point of hyperbole in an effort to impress the villagers with the example of manhood he embodied. If he was accepted in the community, he was safe, respected, and successful, unlike his father, and his life had meaning.

Okonkwo continually rejected the ways of his father, who was deeply indebted to other members of Umuofia, holding no titles, to the point where Okonkwo’s “whole life was dominated by fear, the fear of failure and of weakness” (16). He transferred his fears into the context of Umuofia and the traits that society valued, but what was really the driving force in his decisions “was the fear of himself, lest he should be found to resemble his father” (17). The values of Umuofia resembled the polar opposite of what Unoka was and Okonkwo twisted his motivations around in his mind and presented them to himself and the community as derived from Umuofia’s traditions. From this delusion, Okonkwo established his ultimate goal of becoming a revered member of the village, possessing many titles, and achieving anything necessary displaying his prominence in the community.

The disparity between Okonkwo’s true motivations and his warped motivations lead Okonkwo to behave in ways which shocked other members of Umuofia with his apparent disregard for others, but which made sense to him as he saw weakness and Unoka in alternatives. When Ezeudu, a respected elder in Umuofia, informed Okonkwo that the village Oracle called for the killing of Okonkwo’s adopted son Ikemefuna, he asked Okonkwo not to take part. However, Okonkwo not only accompanied them, but he struck the killing blow as Ikemefuna called out for his protection. When Okonkwo is later questioned by his friend, Obierika, about not participating, Okonkwo became defensive saying, “‘You sound as if you question the authority and decision of the Oracle, who said he should die’” (64). Okonkwo associated participating in carrying out the village’s order with the strength valued by the community, disregarding his own relationship with the boy. Umuofia’s customs and traditions, as he saw them, outweighed his personal feelings in the situation. Okonkwo was mistaken in what the values were in this situation as they failed to comply with his real desire to partake in killing Ikemefuna, doing what his father would not have done. When he beat his wife during the Week of Peace, he did so because he didn’t wish to appear permissive the way Unoka was, but when the village chastised him, he repented accordingly, reconciling and accepting the blame, though he only regretted his actions as far as they cost him some of his standing in the community.

The Ibo ways faded through the novel, arriving at a head in Part Two, bringing the downfall of Okonkwo. There are signs in the novel of the changing mentality and questioning of Ibo ways, such as the abandonment of twins in the forest, by members of the community. During a discussion between Obierika and Okonkwo regarding the inconveniences of the ozo title, Obierika brought up that the title had lost value in other villages. Okonkwo became offended by Obierika’s joking saying “‘I think it is good that our clan holds the ozo title in high esteem […] In those other clans you speak of, ozo is so low that every beggar takes it’’’ (67). Okonkwo’s wording is key. Unoka was a beggar, was a valueless person to Okonkwo, and he held no titles in Umuofia society. If a beggar were allowed to take a title in Umuofia, it would disrupt the foundation on which Okonkwo had built and led his life; this response foreshadowed Okonkwo’s reaction to the larger events of the end of the novel.

When Okonkwo accidentally killed another member of Umuofia during a funeral ceremony, he made no argument about the seven years of banishment that was the standard punishment though it did pain him to leave. After Okonkwo and his family leave, Obierika, who is described as “a man who thought about things” (117) mourned the loss of Okonkwo and questioned the reasoning behind the punishment for an inadvertent crime such as the one Okonkwo committed. This implies that Okonkwo does not think about the traditions he follows; in fact, he does not think about them so long as they continue to sustain his internalized hatred of everything his father stood for.

In living with his mother’s family in the Mbanta village, he initially felt that all was lost, and despaired when he was deprived of Umuofia and the opportunity to fulfill his “great passion – to become one of the lords of the clan” (121). He was distracted from his loss as all were distracted by the arrival and imposition of the white men and their ways. His initial reaction is similar to those around him and though he disapproves of them, they are ignored. When they welcome Okonkwo’s son, Nwoye, as a convert, it upsets him at first, “but on further thought he told himself that Nwoye was not worth fighting for” (142). He’d always seen so many aspects of Unoka in Nwoye and by dismissing him thus, Okonkwo continued his rebellion against his father. He managed to convince himself that when the time came for him to return to Umuofia, he would be back where he belonged, in a society that still knew what it believed in, and he would go back to working his way up in the village. He was convinced that Umuofia would be able to handle the nuisance of the white men swiftly and looked forward to being a part of it.

When Okonkwo returned to find that this was not the case, that instead of fighting, “it seemed as if the very soul of the tribe wept for a great evil that was coming – its own death” (172), he once again despaired and ended his life. The white men attracted enough members of Umuofia, specifically those who occupied the lowest positions and those who questioned the previous order, to severely weaken the village’s effectiveness and conviction. Those valued by the new institutions were those like Unoka. The new ways of Umuofia were too radically different from what Oknonkwo had established as his path in his youth. Though suicide went against the Umuofian traditions, it hadn’t really been about those traditions on the most basic level, and Okonkwo did one last thing that his father would never have had the strength of conviction to do. In a way, Okonkwo’s suicide really did conform to the ways of Umuofia; the true Umuofia that Okonkwo had been able to identify with and that he sought validation from had killed itself with its pliability towards the new ways.

Change, however, is inevitable, and those species and people unable to adapt to new circumstances are left behind. For Okonkwo to survive, he would have needed to reconstruct his beliefs but instead self-destructed; based on how passionate and determined Okonkwo was in his early life, his resistance to the change was complete and irreversible. It was his final downfall. As the Ibo ways changed, Okonkwo resisted such transformation and died with the old traditions.


Works Cited
Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. New York: Ballantine Books, 1991.

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