One need not read far into Chinua Achebe’s novel of life in a Nigerian village during the 19th Century, Things Fall Apart, to understand the mental burden under which the story’s protagonist, Okonkwo, exists. Okonkwo is a leader of his clan and village. A champion wrestler, husband of three wives, and fierce warrior, Okonkwo has gone through life concealing his sense of shame at having grown up under a father, Unoka, known throughout the village for his laziness and for never repaying a debt. As Achebe describes Unoka in Chapter One:
“In his [Unoka’s] day he was lazy and improvident and was quite incapable of thinking about tomorrow. If any money came his way, and it seldom did, he immediately bought gourds of palm-wine, called round his neighbours and made merry. . . Unoka was, of course, a debtor, and he owed every neighbour some money . . . People laughed at him because he was a loafer . . .”
One quickly gets the sense reading Things Fall Apart that Okonkwo, the respected warrior and leader of his clan, may be trying to overcompensate for the shame has felt throughout his life at being the son of the village failure. The beginning of Achebe’s novel is replete with descriptions of his bravery and steadiness, his unwillingness to be cowed by sights that frighten others. In describing the horrors of battle that are a regular part of life among contending villages and clans, the author notes that Okonkwo “was a man of action, a man of war. Unlike his father he could stand the look of blood.” And, for good measure, Achebe asks rhetorically whether it is any wonder that the son is ashamed of his father. Okonkwo is determined to restore honor to his family name and to bury forever the embarrassment associated with his late father’s legacy of debt and ridicule. That the son’s inner self is not as far removed from that of the father, however, is made clear in the following discussion of Okonkwo provided in Chapter Two:
“Okonkwo ruled his household with a heavy hand. His wives, especially the youngest, lived in perpetual fear of his fiery temper, and so did his little children. Perhaps down in his heart Okonkwo was not a cruel man. But his whole life was dominated by fear, the fear of failure and of weakness. . .It was not external but lay deep within himself. It was the fear of himself, lest he should be found to resemble his father.”
As Things Fall Apart progresses, it is that desperate emotional need to prove himself brave and fierce that drives Okonkwo towards the most regretful and terrible decisions he will ever make, not the least of which is the murder of the young boy in his care, Ikemefuna – and act of tribal “justice” for the murder by the boy’s father of a village woman. Okonkwo’s agreement to participate in the murder of the boy, over the objections of the village elder who understands the ramifications for Okonkwo of such an act of brutality against a child for whom he has cared, represents the ultimate manifestation of his willingness to carry out any act of violence in the interest of concealing his fear of appearing weak like his late father. Okonkwo is, indeed, oppressed by his fear of failure. His determination to appear fearless and ruthless so as to further bury the memory of his late father, the village coward and clown, leads to awful consequences, not least of which his participation in the murder of Ikemefuna, the boy for whom he has provided shelter and guidance.