What causes the downfall of Okonkwo in Things Fall Apart?

Anger, violence, pride, an inability to adapt, and a fear of being like his father all take part in the downfall of Okonkwo in Things Fall Apart.

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The story of Things Fall Apart comes closer to Aristotle's definition of tragedy than most of the extant Greek tragedies do. In many ways, Okonkwo resembles Oedipus, a great man, respected by those around him, who falls from his high position principally through the operation of fate. It is true that Okonkwo, like Oedipus, has a flawed character, but also like Oedipus, it is difficult to see how he could have avoided his downfall. The society in which he lives disintegrates around him, and there is nothing he can do to stop it.

Okankwo is a harsh, stubborn man with a foul temper. However, these faults do not directly contribute to his downfall. It is possible that, if he had not been exiled to Mbanta, he could have defended Umuofia from the encroachment of the white men by fighting and persuading his tribe to fight. It is doubtful whether this would have made any difference, but even if one assumes that it would, the direct cause of Okonkwo's exile is not his own violence but the accident of the exploding gun, which is to say, fate.

Achebe's aim in showing Okonkwo's flaws of character is not to suggest that they cause his downfall but to show a characteristic leader of Igbo culture in all his complexity. This culture has sustained itself for many generations with harsh, imperious men like Okonkwo in command. It is the external forces of British imperialism that cause Okonkwo's downfall and the collapse of the society he represents, and this is what Obierika tells the district commissioner at the end of the novel.

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One could argue that Okonkwo's downfall is directly related to his fear of being viewed as weak or becoming like his inept father Unoka. As a young man, Okonkwo was determined to become a successful, masculine warrior and grow up to be the complete opposite of his father. Okonkwo's fear of being viewed as weak and effeminate influenced him to become a callous, violent man. Okonkwo's aggressive, hostile personality leads to several bad decisions, which results in his downfall.

Okonkwo's first significant mistake is beating his wife during the Week of Peace, which is considered an offense against the earth goddess. Okonkwo then becomes Ikemefuna's surrogate father and grows attached to the boy. Tragically, the Oracle declares that Ikemefuna will be sacrificed and specifically instructs Okonkwo to not play a role in the boy's death. However, Okonkwo fears that he will be viewed as weak and kills Ikemefuna against the Oracle's instructions.

Okonkwo's violent actions ruin his relationship with Nwoye, but he remains callous, hostile, and insensitive. During Ezeudu's funeral, Okonkwo accidentally shoots his gun and kills Ezeudu's son, which results in a seven-year exile. Okonkwo loses his titles and is forced to move his family to Mbanta. When he returns to Umuofia, Okonkwo cannot adapt to the changing culture and responds with violence by decapitating a messenger sent from the European colonists. In order to avoid arrest and humiliation, Okonkwo hangs himself. Each of Okonkwo's tragic mistakes stem from violence, which is related to his fear of being viewed as weak. Okonkwo was never able to overcome his fear, and his hostile demeanor led to his demise.

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Okonkwo is incapable of self acceptance. He bases his success and failure on his father's success or failure and in turn puts those same pressures on his children. He cannot cope with the evolution of the tribe and village when the missionaries arrived and his world begins to "fall apart."  Like many elders in a traditional society, he feels he has no place in the "new" village and the old ways are as unnecessary as he is. Because he measures himself and others by standards that are no longer valid - he feels invalid and unnecessary.

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Okonkwo has an excessive fear of being like his father, so as a result, he begins at an early age to prove to his tribe that he is strong and brave. As a result, he becomes an aggressive, angry, violent man in trying to distance himself from his father. His father was lazy and a poor provider for his family. Okonkwo's determination helps him succeed, but it also is partially responsible for his downfall. His anger and violence causes him to committ acts that damage his reputation. The more he achieves, the less he enjoys it because his fear of failure is always there, reminding him that he must continually prove himself to be better than his father. During his exile, Okonkwo learns the value of promoting unity within his community, but it's too late. When he returns to his village, the missionaries have already influenced his tribe, and it is Okonkwo's excessive pride that won't allow him to accept this. He's angry that his people don't support him in his fight against the Europeans, and he allows his fear of failure to blind him to the inevitability of European interference in the traditional beliefs of his people. Again, Okonkwo's anger and violence get the best of him, and he committs his final desperate act of vengeance. His suicide signals his spiritual alienation from his traditional beliefs.

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Just as the title of this novel suggests, Okonkwo's downfall is caused by his inability to follow the mores of his culture and to adapt to colonization. His pride aids him breaking the mores of the clan. First of all, he beats his wife during Peace Week, which is unheard of. Next, he shoots a young boy when his gun explodes: "Violent deaths were frequent but nothing like this had ever occurred" (Chap.13). For this crime, he is banished for seven years. Next, as the Whites take over, Okonkwo kills the messenger: "Okonkwo's matchet descended twice and the man's head lay beside his uniformed body" (Chap.24). Lastly, Okonkwo commits the greatest sin of all, suicide.

As the culture of the clan falls apart so does Okonkwo's life as he fails to adjust to his role within the clan and later, his role as the clan's society is changed through the pacification by the White man.

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