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 buried among his people. His tragic end underscores that there can be no compromise between traditional and modern society. Things must of necessity fall apart.
Unoka (ew-NOH-kah), Okonkwo’s father. Lazy, shiftless, and always in debt, he is a man without title and unable to provide for his family. He is a good storyteller and a...
(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...
(The entire section is 946 words.)