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Can Okonkwo be considered a tragic hero?In Greek plays such as Oedipus Rex by...

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changingthings | Student, Grade 10 | eNotes Newbie

Posted October 24, 2010 at 11:36 PM via web

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Can Okonkwo be considered a tragic hero?

In Greek plays such as Oedipus Rex by Sophocles, it was very common for the man character to be a "tragic hero"-- defined by Aristotle as a person:

#Usually of noble birth
# Hamartia - a.k.a. the tragic flaw that eventually leads to his downfall.
# Peripeteia - a reversal of fortune brought about by the hero's tragic flaw
# His actions result in an increase of self- awareness and self-knowledge
# The audience must feel pity and fear for this character.

Can Okonko be considered a tragic hero just as much as Oedipus Rex or many characters from Shakespeare?

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lynnebh | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Senior Educator

Posted October 25, 2010 at 7:13 AM (Answer #1)

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In my opinion, Okonkwo can be considered a tragic hero in some of your categories, but not all. He is not of noble birth, but he gains a degree of nobility through his achievements in his tribe,  so perhaps this can satisfy this requirement. He has a lot of hero qualities. He has achieved famed as a strong wrestler at an early age. He has also worked hard and become a successful yam farmer, with several wives. He has achieved respect among his fellow Ibo tribesmen. He is also well known among the neighboring tribes.

Ah, but things soon fall apart for poor Oknokwo. He definitely has a refersal of fortune. Okonkwo is so afraid of turning out like his father, a lazy man who could not support his family, a man who owed money to everyone and who preferred to sing and dance all day instead of work, that he does everything in his power to not become this type of man. He does not understand the true measure of a man, however, and his tragic flaw is arrogance in assuming that everything that is like his father is weakness and unmanly, and everything that is the opposite of his father must be good and manly.

This arrogance causes him to act rashly. He kills people by mistake. He beats his wives so that the other men will not think he is weak. He kills his adopted son, even though he has been warned not to participate in the killing. He goes out on the phony hunting party in spite of being told by a tribal elder to stay home, and when Ikemefuna is not immediately killed by the blows of others, he finishes the job rather than stand around doing nothing and risking that the other men might think him weak.

Unlike tragic heroes, Okonkwo does not learn from his mistakes so there is never any increase of self-awareness and self-knowledge. He goes to his death thinking that he is right, so when things start to fall apart, they just keep spiraling out of control and he winds up committing suicide. He even alienates his son because he cannot love the boy. The boy is more like grandfather than his father, and Okonkwo believes he must treat him harshly so that the other men will respect him.

Do you feel pity for Okonko? This is a matter of opinion. In one sense, one might pity him for trying so hard but just not getting it. After all, he had a dysfunctional upbringing. But on the other hand, he has had plenty of chances. He is warned by many people, including his wives and tribal elders, not to do certain things. He has even been exiled for years, but when he returns, he goes back to his old ways. He beats his wives, he is cruel to his children, and he kills a child. In my opinion, it is hard to have pity for such a man.

In the end, perhaps Oknokwo is more of an anti-hero than a tragic hero. Perhaps he is the villain of the story and not the hero. What do you think? 

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