In Chinua Achebe's novel, Things Fall Apart, what makes Okonkwo heroic and what makes him an anti-hero?
The definition of a hero is someone who is either just admired, or a person who is admired for his or her honourable deeds. A hero may also just be the lead male character in a story. An anti-hero is a supposed hero who portrays the opposite qualities of a hero, such as cowardice, ruthlessness, fear, etc. A character may display both qualities in a novel, as Okonkwo does in Things Fall Apart.
What makes Okonkwo heroic is that he managed to outlive and overcome the poor legacy his father, Unoka, left behind. Unoka was a helpless man, one who had brought shame to his family. The text states:
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 back. But Unoka was such a man that he always succeeded in borrowing more, and piling up his debts.
Okonkwo therefore did not have a good head start in life and had to build his own legacy, which he admirably did. He, unlike his father, worked extremely hard and became quite successful, so much so, that he earned the admiration of practically everyone in his village and was one of the most respected inhabitants of Umuofia. This was a source of great pride to him and he thus treated with disdain any man he felt was not doing his duty.
Okonkwo also became a hero because he was the only wrestler from his village, who had thrown Amalinze the Cat in a wrestling match, after he had gone unbeaten for seven years. Okonkwo brought fame not only to himself, but also to his village. Furthermore, Okonkwo was tall and huge and he had a fierce look about him which would inspire fear in any man. his physical presence not only gave rise to fear but also generated respect and admiration for him.
Added to this is the fact that Okonkwo was also a fearless warrior and his prowess was so much respected that he was the one sent to represent the interests of Umuofia if there were to be a dispute. As the text states:
He was a wealthy farmer and had two barns full of yams, and had just married his third wife. To crown it all he had taken two titles and had shown incredible prowess in two inter-tribal wars. And so although Okonkwo was still young, he was already one of the greatest men of his time. Age was respected among his people, but achievement was revered.
Okonkwo was also the only one in his tribe who fiercely resisted the attempts by the colonists to change him. He not only resisted their influence and their laws in words, but also did so in deed. He had only contempt for them and openly expressed his resentment. After he and other tribesmen had been humiliated by the foreigners, he took action and killed one of the messengers who had been sent by the Commissioner. He consistently tried to instigate his fellow tribesmen to rise up against the colonists and he partially succeeded, but on the whole, his attempts were a failure due to the apathy and fear of many in his tribe.
All of these made Okonkwo heroic.
What makes Okonkwo an anti-hero is firstly, the situation with Ikemefuna, a boy from another village who had been placed in his care. Okonkwo was asked to look after the child until it was decided by the elders what should be done to him as compensation for the murder of one of their tribe by Ikemefuna's father. Okonkwo was like a father to the boy and grew very fond of him. Ikemefuna also formed a bond with Okonkwo's first son, Nwoye.
Ikemefuna lived in Okonkwo's household for three years and when the order came from the Oracle of the Hills and the Caves that he should be taken away and executed, Okonkwo decided to accompany them, ignoring Ogbuefi Ezeudu's advice not to accompany them. When one of the men struck Ikemefuna with his machete and failed to kill him, Okonkwo drew his own machete and cut the boy down, fearing that he would be called weak if he did not do so.
Secondly, Okonkwo repeatedly seemed to disregard custom, such as during the Week Of Peace when tradition had it that there should be no violence. Okonkwo, in disrespect, beat his youngest wife, Ojiugo, for having her hair plaited instead of doing her household chores. Okonkwo was fined for this. On another occasion, he accidentally killed the son of the deceased during the funeral. For this Okonkwo was banished to his mother's village, Mbaino, for five years.
Finally, Okonkwo could also be regarded as an anti-hero for committing suicide by hanging himself instead of facing what he believed was foreign justice. In their tradition, suicide was taboo. It was deemed a shameful act and none of Okonkwo's tribesmen was prepared to touch his body, as one of the them explained:
"It is an abomination for a man to take his own life. It is an offence against the Earth, and a man who commits it will not be buried by his clansmen. His body is evil, and only strangers may touch it. That is why we ask your people to bring him down, because you are strangers."