What is the significance of the wrestling matches in Things Fall Apart? What is an event in American society similar to this tradition?
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In the Ibo village, the wrestling matches are events which can signal the passage from childhood into maturity for the boys, or continued virility and leadership for the men. Each year, the community gathers to watch the ritual. First, the boys are matched. The boy who wins earns praise, respect, and a reputation. He will be seen as a rising leader. This is how Okonkwo earned his fame, and built his reputation as a hardworking man of strength. For the men, the wrestling matches are tests of continued strength. They provide the chance to demonstrate championship and solidify one's place in society.
It's difficult to pin down an exact comparison in American society. Any kind of sporting event offers some similarities: a sense of competition & championship, a chance at developing a reputation, but none really carry the weight that wrestling does in Umuofia. There's no one rite of passage in which each American male participates. It's more of an individual discovery, rather than a community event.
When analyzing wrestling in the novel, we can look at two distinct questions. How does Things Fall Apart use wrestling as a means of exposition (to establish character)? And what significance does wrestling have for the Ibo people?
In the culture of the Ibo, the wrestling matches connect to ideas of prowess for the individual and to pride and honor for the individual and the village.
"As a young man of eighteen he had brought honor to his village by throwing Amalinze the Cat."
Across the novel, the idea is established that reputation and respect can be earned by doing anything well. Wrestling, for the village, is a special activity, however, because it involves contests against other villages. Inter-village status is at stake in the wrestling matches, weighting these events with special meaning.
Significantly, Okonkwo's greatest wrestling feat is used to introduce him in the opening passage of the novel. A very physical man, Oknokwo is closely connected to his identity as a wrestler and this connection is front and center in the novel's treatment of his character.
The feat of throwing the Cat does two things in the novel's introduction. It explains how Okonkwo has come to have some fame and so hold some prominence in the village and demonstrates the idea that Okonkwo is prone to violent action.
"Okonkwo’s physical strength, integrity, and courage give him heroic stature, but his pride and individualism contradict the essentially communal nature of Umuofia" (eNotes).
The regionalism of the wrestling matches and the function of this athletic event as a mode of identity can perhaps be compared to college sports in the U.S.
Olympic sports might also stand in as a good parallel to the wrestling of the novel as many Olympic competitions feature individual athletes in competition with one another (as opposed to team sports).
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