Okonkwo’s character is shaped in reaction to his father. Unoka is remembered for his idleness and his gentleness, characteristics which Okonkwo associates with weakness and effeminacy. Although the Igbo judge a man by his own actions, not by those of his father, Okonkwo is gripped by a “fear of himself, lest he should resemble his father.” Moreover, Unoka was not a good provider, and this leaves Okonkwo without the benefits of an inheritance. From an early age, Okonkwo must make his won way in the world, and it is fortunate for him that the non-hierarchical flexibility of Igbo society offers him the opportunity to improve his station. His fear of resembling his father and his disadvantages turn him into an obsessively aggressive achiever, a humorless, short-tempered man.
This assertiveness serves Okonkwo well for a while, helping him build and provide for a comfortable compound that houses three wives and several children. As his material position improves, his importance as a leader of the community also increases; the rigid effort with which he builds his life also dooms him, however, for he is not only a self-made man but also a man apart. By obsessively erasing the effeminate from his character, Okonkwo makes himself into a man who is unable to enjoy his success fully, and by focusing for so long on his individual struggle to be successful, he distances himself from the communal life of Umuofia. This distance becomes visible in his exile, his estrangement from his eldest son, his clansmen’s refusal to support his rebellion, and the suicide with which he cuts himself off from his future spirit life.
Okonkwo’s error is exemplified by his interpretation of the Igbo concept of chi, one’s personal god. He frequently recites the proverb that “when a man says yes his chi says yes also,” a saying that underscores the Igbo respect for individual initiative. Yet Okonkwo’s successes and aggressive nature lead him to forget that this freedom has limitations. His belief in his own ability to say yes strongly enough blinds him to necessary accommodations.
In a sense, Okonkwo represents a native culture threatened by the coming of Christianity and European ways. Like Okonkwo, the Umuofians face separation from their past, and like him they face a future that will require difficult compromises. Thus, Okonkwo’s demise foreshadows the elimination of traditional Igbo culture. Yet Achebe carefully describes the adaptability of Igbo society. Its decentralization and nonhierarchical structure allow for change. Okonkwo’s friend Obierika represents this adaptive force within Umuofian society, acting as a counterforce to Okonkwo’s inflexibility. Obierika argues for accommodation, but Okonkwo cannot accept such advice. His greatest flaw is his inability to adapt to cultural change. At the end of the novel, Okonkwo stands alone, a self-proclaimed defender of an inflexible traditionalism that contradicts the true flexibility of his culture. Okonkwo is an exceptional individual who is destroyed by enormous cultural forces, but the potential heroism of his final act of defiance is ironically undercut by his alienation from his clan.
In a final ironic commentary on Okonkwo’s misguided heroism, Achebe tells his reader that the District Commissioner plans to include a paragraph on Okonkwo’s unusual behavior in his projected book The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger, a reminder that Okonkwo’s inability to understand cultural change is a small reflection of a more pervasive blindness.