The Characters (Masterplots II: British and Commonwealth Fiction Series)
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...
(The entire section is 570 words.)
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Characters Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Okonkwo (oh-KOHN-kwoh), the protagonist, one of the leaders of the Ibo community of Umuofia. He struggles from humble beginnings to achieve high status yet is still haunted by feelings of insecurity associated with his former lack of status. He is now a great warrior and wealthy farmer, with two barns full of yams, three wives, and two titles; he is also a lord in the clan. This string of successes is interrupted when he accidentally kills a man and is forced into exile for seven years. His plans for advancement are of necessity put on hold, and he chafes under this banishment. While he is gone, European missionaries establish themselves in the midst of Umuofia, make converts, and subtly undermine the old order. Under the impact of Westernization and modernization, things begin to fall apart. When Okonkwo returns, he finds Umuofia much changed and its former independence and integrity dangerously threatened by the new ways. He tries to rally his people and save his community. He is the most authentic representative and protector of traditional society. He rejects the new values that are subverting the old order and crosses the point of no return by killing a messenger of the Europeans to force his clansmen to make a choice. When they let the other messengers escape, he realizes that his community will not go to war against the Europeans. He commits suicide, which is a great evil and prevents him from being...
(The entire section is 758 words.)
Characters and Culture
The chief protagonist is Okonkwo, whose flawed but fascinating nature displayed against the backdrop of the encounter of the Igbo with the white man and his religion, has brought comparisons to Greek tragic heroes. Although his father has been poor — the Earth Goddess had never given him decent crops — Okonkwo is respected by the community in spite of that because of his character and his prowess at wrestling. Ironically then, it is his own psychological problem with his father's poverty, not some arbitrary limitation dictated by the gods, that leads to many of his other shortcomings, not the least of which is his constant desire to prove his virility. His narrow definition of what is masculine causes him to despise stories (and consequently the wisdom imparted in them) and words as the domain of women. He has a tender side, but squelches most tender impulses. Thus he is fond of his hostage "son" Ikemefuna, yet participates in his killing even after he is exonerated from having to do so. He maltreats his own son as too womanish, yet dotes on his daughter, the only surviving child of his second wife.
Okonkwo spends much of his early manhood building up wealth and position only to be banished when he accidentally shoots a boy at a funeral. Forced to flee to his mother's kinsmen in Mbanta, he is unable to consolidate his gains, although his friend Obierika brings him money and keeps him informed. In his absence, the Christian church makes inroads in Umuofia, and the nearby people of Abame have been slaughtered in retaliation for their killing of one white man. Soon the Christians find their way to Mbanta, where Okonkwo dismisses them as a joke, ironically just when his own son is being drawn to the faith. The exile period foreshadows tensions that will erupt into conflict once Okonkwo returns to Umuofia. In Mbanta, a Christian convert kills the sacred python, but as the perpetrator dies in his sleep, retaliation against the Christians is deemed unnecessary.
Upon returning to Umuofia after seven years banishment, Okonkwo discovers that many have converted to Christianity and that a more direct form of colonial rule has taken root, completely uprooting tribal justice and destroying families by imprisoning young men for long periods. When the good Anglican priest, Mr. Brown, tries to pay a visit, Okonkwo spurns him, still angry that his first son Nwoye has converted. When the fanatical Mr. Smith takes over, bad turns to worse as the...
(The entire section is 946 words.)
Ikemefuna comes to live with Okonkwo's family as a peace offering from Ikemefuna's home tribe to the Ibo for the killing of a Umuofian daughter From the beginning, Ikemefuna fills the void in Okonkwo's life that Okonkwo's own son cannot.
Ikemefuna adjusts quickly to his new family and tribe and energetically participates in activities. He earns everyone's love and respect because he is so lively and talented Only two years older than Nwoye, Ikemefuna already knows much about the world and can do almost anything. He can identify birds, trap rodents, and make flutes. He knows which trees make the best bows and tells delightful folk stories. Okonkwo appreciates Ikemefuna for the example he sets for Nwoye.
Ikemefuna lives with Okonkwo for three years. The tribe then agrees to kill Ikemefuna because the Oracle of the Hills and the Caves has requested it. Ikemefuna's death brings far-reaching consequences.
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Okonkwo's son, Nwoye, disappoints him. Nwoye shows all the signs of his grandfather's sensitivity and laziness, and Okonkwo fears that Nwoye will shame the reputable name Okonkwo has worked so hard to achieve. Nwoye knows that he should enjoy the masculine rites of his fellow tribesmen, but he prefers his mother's company and the stories she tells. He questions and is disturbed by many of the tribe's customs. Okonkwo beats and nags Nwoye, making Nwoye more unhappy and further distancing him from the ways of the clan.
When Ikemefuna comes to live with Okonkwo's family, Nwoye grows to admire his knowledge and to love him like a real brother. Out of his respect for Ikemefuna, Nwoye begins to associate more with the men of the family and tribe, and to act more like the man that his father wants him to become.
After Ikemefuna's death, Nwoye feels an emptiness that cannot be filled by the clan's traditions. He is plagued by old questions for which the clan has no answers.
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Out of awe and respect, the Ibo tribe refers to Okonkwo as "Roaring Flame." Fiery of temper with a blazing appearance, Okonkwo puts fear in the hearts of his clan members as well as his own family unit. Okonkwo's huge build, topped by bushy eyebrows and a very broad nose, gives him the look of a tornado on the warpath. His whole demeanor reeks of controlled fury; he even breathes heavily, like a dragon ready to explode. He always appears to be wound for fierce action.
While Okonkwo's appearance portrays a man people fear, it belies the terror Okonkwo hides within himself. For his entire life, Okonkwo has had to deal with having a father who is considered weak and lazy—"agabala" in the tribe's terms. The tribe detests weak, effeminate men. Okonkwo is terrified to think that the tribe will liken him to his father. He is even more afraid of recognizing in himself some semblance of weakness that he sees in his father. Thus, he despises gentleness, idleness, and demonstrations of sensitivity. He will not allow himself to show love, to enjoy the fruits of hard work, or to demonstrate concern for others, nor can he tolerate these in other men. He rules his family unit with an iron fist and expects everyone to act on his commands. He speaks curtly to those he considers less successful than himself and dismisses them as unimportant. An extremely proud man, Okonkwo continually pushes to overcome the image his heredity might have given him.
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The first white missionary to come to Umuofia, Mr. Brown gains the clan's respect through his calm nature and patience. He neither attacks the tribe's customs nor badgers them to join him. He restrains his overzealous members from harsh tactics. He simply offers education to the Umuofians and their children. The mission is flourishing when Mr. Brown has to leave for health reasons.
The District Commissioner
The District Commissioner arrives in Umuofia at the same tune as the missionaries. He and his court messengers—called "Ashy-Buttocks" for the ash-colored shorts they wear—try clansmen for breaking the white man's law. These white men are greatly hated for their arrogance and disrespect for tribal customs.
Ekwefi, forty-five years old, is Okonkwo's second wife. Although she fell in love with Okonkwo when he won the famous wrestling match, she did not move in with him until she left her husband three years after the contest. Ekwefi had been lovely in her youth, referred to as "Crystal of Beauty." The years have been hard on her. She has become a courageous and strong-willed woman, overcoming disappointment and bitterness in her life She has borne ten children, only one of whom has lived. She stands up to Okonkwo and lives for her daughter, Ezinma.
Enoch is an overzealous member of Mr. Brown's mission. While Mr. Brown restrains Enoch from taking his...
(The entire section is 942 words.)