How do father-son relationships function in Things Fall Apart?
In Things Fall Part, father-son relationships play a significant part in the narrative.
The first chapter discusses the ways in which Okonkwo’s entire persona is shaped as a response to his father, as Okonkwo determines to be everything his father wasn’t. The chapters that follow tell the story of Ikemefuna, who becomes a sort of adopted son to Okonkwo and helps to illuminate the conflicts that exist between Okonkwo and Nwoye, Okonkwo’s real son.
Late in the novel, Nwoye’s break from his father helps to define the conflict between the Igbo and the British colonizing forces and figures powerfully into Okonkwo’s sense of the cultural dissolution happening around him.
These relationships of fathers and sons communicate some of the major themes of the text.
First, Okonkwo’s relationship to his father, Unoka, helps to establish the important fact that Okonkwo is a human being with a complex internal life. His personal history creates intricate and intimate conflicts of the heart and sows the seeds of specific social ambitions in Okonkwo that are far from the simple-minded and outwardly caricatured ways of being existent in stereotypical views of Africa and Africans (which Achebe was working against in this novel). Okonkwo’s relationship to Unoka, in other words, offers a depiction of a depth of emotion, social consciousness and psychological distress and thus makes Okonkwo a fully human, widely relatable character.
Second, we can see the expectations and cultural definitions of masculinity and success through the lens of these father-son relationships. Unoka stands as an example of failure in some ways, as he lives in debt and does not provide well for his family. (He is also a kind man who has positive traits.)
“Unoka […] was a failure. He was poor and his wife and children had barely enough to eat. People laughed at him because he was a loafer, and they swore never to lend him any more money because he never paid them back.”
Unoka’s personality and behavior are contrasted to Oknokwo’s attitudes and work ethic and so come to define the expectations for masculine success in the culture of the village.
“Fortunately, among these people a man was judged according to his worth and not according to the worth of his father. Okonkwo was clearly cut out for great things. He was still young but he had won fame as the greatest wrestler in the nine villages. He was a wealthy farmer and had two barns full of yams, and had just married his third wife.”
In raising his own son, Okonkwo worries that Nwoye will be a failure like Unoka and so not be able to live a happy and respectable life. This is a valid concern, most would agree, although Okonkwo’s methods of shaping Nwoye are sometimes brutal and often rigorous and unfeeling. The costs of this method of parenting become clear when Nwoye breaks from his family to join the Christians. Thus, Okonkwo’s attempts to align his son with the expectations of masculine success in the village backfire. Okonkwo cannot form his son into the mold of a successful Igbo man and so loses him to the British.
The unbending perspective that Okonkwo brings to raising Nwoye is yet another significant element of the novel and connects to the same unyielding insistence on being right that is associated with the British missionaries.
Yet, because the differences between Unoka and Okonkwo have been thoroughly described as reflecting the value system and social expectations of the village, we can see that Okonkwo’s desires for his son are not merely based on personal preference. In treating Nwoye as he does and trying to make him into a certain kind of man, Okonkwo is attempting to perpetuate the values of his culture.
This is an important aspect of the relationship because it suggests that the father-son relationships in the novel are one important way that the Igbo culture survives—or dissolves.