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Things Fall Apart

by Chinua Achebe

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Why does Okonkwo kill Ikemefuna in Things Fall Apart?

Okonkwo kills Ikemefuna because his afraid of looking weak in front of the other village men.

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The central aspect of Okonkwo's character that is accentuated throughout the novel is his pride. There are numerous examples that illustrate his sense of self and his ambition, even arrogance, such as references to his success as a farmer, his skill as a wrestler, the relationship with his family, and the respect and envy he has gained in his community.

Okonkwo's pride is an extension of his fear of failure. "His whole life [is] dominated by fear, the fear of failure and of weakness." Okonkwo tries everything to be the complete opposite of his father, Unoka, who was an utter failure—a man who could not even be given a proper burial and had to spend his last days in the forest because he suffered from the "swelling" that was deemed an abomination.

When the oracle declares that Ikemefuna, the boy left in Okonkwo's care, has to be executed, Ogbuefi Ezeudu asks Okonkwo not to have any part in the boy's death. Okonkwo, however, decides to accompany the group of elders who are to lead the boy out of the village and kill him. During this trip, one of the elders draws his machete and strikes Ikemefuna. The blow does not kill the boy, and when he cries out, Okonkwo "[draws] his machete and cut him down."

Although Okonkwo secretly grew to love Ikemefuna, he kills the boy because he does not want to be perceived as weak. The fact that he has never openly displayed affection for the young lad is a further indication of Okonkwo's fear of displaying weakness. All his actions are related to his desire to retain his misguided pride—he always has to prove how strong he is, even when he breaks sacred rules in the process.

Okonkwo's actions in bringing about Ikemefuna's death also foreshadow his own death later in the novel. It is his pride that drives him to commit suicide instead of facing a humiliating arrest by those he despises. His suicide adds further irony because his act is seen as an abomination: Okonkwo, just like his father, cannot be buried. Only strangers can bury him, and Obierika asks the District Commissioner if he and his men would do so upon payment.

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Ikemefuna is given by the village of Mbaino as a sacrifice to Umuofia because one of their villagers killed a girl from Okonkwo's Umuofia clan. The boy is handed over to Okonkwo to raise, but it is understood that Ikemefuna's life at any time could be taken as a sacrifice.

Three years later, when the oracle declares that Ikemefuna must be sacrificed, Okonkwo is grieved because he loves the boy as if he is his son. He thinks more of him than he does of his biological son, Nwoye. Nwoye also thinks highly of Ikemefuna and loves him as an older brother and role model.

Okonkwo knows he is not supposed to participate in the killing of Ikemefuna because the boy is, in a sense, his adopted son. Nevertheless, he goes with the other men and Ikemefuna into the forest. When the first machete strikes, Ikemefuna turns to Okonkwo as a son would to a father. Afraid of looking weak in front of the other men, Okonkwo takes out his machete and participates in the killing.

Okonkwo does this because he was so shamed and scarred as a child by his shiftless father, a man nobody respected. He overcompensates by working extra hard and displaying a masculine temperament. This makes him a respected elder and leader in village life, but comes at a cost. Okonkwo's toxic masculinity arises out of fear of being disrespected like his father. He is controlled by how he is perceived by the other men in the village.

Ikemefuna's death costs Okonkwo Nwoye. When Okonkwo comes in after the murder, Nwoye knows without any word being spoken that Ikemefuna has been killed. Because of this,

something seemed to give way inside [Nwoye], like the snapping of a tightened bow.

Nwoye finds it difficult to accept the brutality of village life and will later reject his father's heritage to become a Christian.

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Even though Okonkwo loves Ikemefuna and in some ways thinks more highly of him than of his own son, Okonkwo participates in the death of Ikemefuna because it has been decreed by the oracle, and he is also scared of being thought to be weak by the other men with him. One of the major aspects of Okonkwo's character is the way that he set himself to be completely different from his father, who was thought to be weak, feminine and not manly enough. Therefore, throughout the novel, Okonkwo deliberately pushes himself to show everybody, including himself, how manly he can be. Note how the text describes the death of Ikemefuna in Chapter VII:

He heard Ikemefuna cry, "My father, they have killed me!" as he ran towards him. Dazed with fear, Okonkwo drew his matchet and cut him down. He was afraid of being thought weak.

What drives Okonkwo to participate in the killing of Ikemefuna therefore is his fear of being perceived as "weak" if he hung back and did not participate. Even though others have counselled him not to be involved in this killing, Okonkwo's fear of what others might think of him and what they might say drives him to kill Ikemefuna, which is an action that will haunt him for some time afterwards.

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I'll offer up two possibilities, neither of which I feel are exhaustive or all-encompassing, but do both coincide with his tragic flaw:

(1) Okonkwo's belief in and reliance upon tradition. When the elders decide that Ikemefuna should be killed, Okonkwo does not second guess or challenge their decision, just as he did not challenge the decision to place Ikemefuna with his family three years before. Okonkwo sees his adherence to the wishes of the village elders as part of his responsibility to his culture and tradition. We can juxtapose this to the warning of the eldest member of the village who warns Okonkwo against participating. However, this is the perspective of one old man and of the collective wisdom of the elders.

(2) Okonkwo's fear of the judgment of others, particularly regarding his own masculinity. In part because of the old man's warning, Okonkwo feels compelled to show that he is strong and devoid of emotion by participating in Ikemefuna's murder. Although it is suggested that Okonkwo has mixed feelings about this, his internal need to not appear weak or overly emotional in front of the other men of the village wins the day.

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Okonkwo kills Ikemefuna for precisely two reasons, though whether or not they are "good" is up to interpretation.

Ikemefuna's status in his new tribe is precarious from the beginning. It seems he is left with Okonkwo for three years almost out of neglect. No one seems to make a decision about him. The tribal elders leave him with Okonkwo almost out of default. One day, for no reason that is revealed, the elders decide to kill the boy. Okonkwo goes along with the elders as he always does.

During the killing itself, the boy runs to Okonkwo for help after receiving one blow from a machete, crying, "My father, they have killed me!" He uses the term "father," which is pointed out earlier in the novel as being unusual under the circumstances. Okonkwo raises his machete and delivers the final blow, killing the boy. In the narrator's words, Okonkwo was "afraid of being thought weak."

Okonkwo goes along with the tribal leaders and is afraid to be thought weak, and thus kills Ikemefuna. Like I said, I don't know that the reasons are good ones.

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