Part One, Chapter 1 Summary and Analysis
Chapter One introduces readers to the main character, the Igbo warrior Okonkwo, who is famous in the nine villages for throwing Amalinze the Cat in a wrestling match at the age of eighteen. He has since become a great and powerful man in his village of Iguedo, one of the nine villages that make up Umuofia, where he has amassed much wealth and taken many titles. His dogged pursuit of success is fueled by his hatred of his father Unoka, a lazy debtor, who embarrassed Okonkwo all his life. There's a story about one of Unoka's lenders, who comes to see him one day to collect but is rebuffed by a self-satisfied Unoka, who says that he'll pay his biggest debts, pointing to the wall where he has recorded them with tick marks. Determined not to be like his father, Okonkwo makes himself into a great man. The respect he earns leads to him being charged with the care of a young boy named Ikemefuna, who has been sent as a peace offering from a rival village.
One example of a metaphor from this chapter is "proverbs are the palm-oil with which words are eaten." Palm-oil was commonly used in Igbo culture and appears in most of the dishes characters eat in this novel. To say that proverbs are eaten with this palm-oil is to say that they are prepared in expert fashion and that they are an art form used every day in their culture.
Drums. Throughout the story, we'll hear the beating of drums, which often build up to wrestling matches and other great social events. In this chapter, the drums beat while Okonkwo wrestles Amalinze the Cat, heightening the tension of the scene.
Examples of similes from this chapter include "Okonkwo was as slippery as a fish in water" and "Okonkwo's fame grew like a bush-fire." Note that both of these similes compare Okonkwo to a part of the natural world. This underscores the fact that his life and culture are rooted in the earth and draw strength from nature.
Cowries. Cowries are shells that the Igbo use as units of currency. They symbolize wealth—or, in Unoka's case, debt, because he lacks cowries to pay off his loans.
Kola Nuts. When guests call on a member of the tribe, the host breaks open a kola nut and shares it with the guests. The kola nut is thus a symbol of fellowship and respect. Refusing to partake of a kola nut, such as Okoye does when he comes to collect on Unoka's debt, indicates that one doesn't respect the host and isn't interested in their fellowship.
Tick Marks. These tick marks are obvious symbols of Unoka's debt, and each tick mark represents a debt of a hundred cowries. That his entire wall is filled with these tick marks should indicate to the reader that Unoka has lived a life of laziness and financial irresponsibility.
Respect. The first chapter draws an obvious comparison between Okonkwo, a well-respected man, and his lazy father, Unoka, who never did anything commendable as long as he lived. In general, old age is highly respected in Igbo culture, but because Unoka took no titles and died with debt, he never earned the respect of his tribesmen. Okonkwo, however, strives to achieve the highest rank in his village, and he spend his life building his fame and wealth so that he'll be considered a great man (unlike his father). Achebe uses the stark differences between the two men to build up the image of Okonkwo as a great leader and warrior. His downfall will be all the more tragic because of his greatness.
Wealth. Like most cultures, the Igbo prize wealth and power in men, and this leads Okonkwo to a dogged pursuit of fame and prestige. Unlike his father, who dies in debt, Okonkwo builds himself a huge compound, becomes a prodigious farmer, and fathers eight children. Both men are measured by their wealth and thus subject to the same social constructs that determine what makes someone a man worthy of respect. However, Unoka doesn't seem to care about other people's expectations, and one could argue that he's the happier of the two men because of it.