Okonkwo’s character is shaped in reaction to his father. Unoka is remembered for his idleness and his gentleness, characteristics which Okonkwo associates with weakness and effeminacy. Although the Igbo judge a man by his own actions, not by those of his father, Okonkwo is gripped by a “fear of himself, lest he should resemble his father.” Moreover, Unoka was not a good provider, and this leaves Okonkwo without the benefits of an inheritance. From an early age, Okonkwo must make his won way in the world, and it is fortunate for him that the non-hierarchical flexibility of Igbo society offers him the opportunity to improve his station. His fear of resembling his father and his disadvantages turn him into an obsessively aggressive achiever, a humorless, short-tempered man.
This assertiveness serves Okonkwo well for a while, helping him build and provide for a comfortable compound that houses three wives and several children. As his material position improves, his importance as a leader of the community also increases; the rigid effort with which he builds his life also dooms him, however, for he is not only a self-made man but also a man apart. By obsessively erasing the effeminate from his character, Okonkwo makes himself into a man who is unable to enjoy his success fully, and by focusing for so long on his individual struggle to be successful, he distances himself from the communal life of Umuofia. This distance becomes visible in his exile, his estrangement from his eldest son, his clansmen’s refusal to support his rebellion, and the suicide with which he cuts himself off from his future spirit life.
Okonkwo’s error is exemplified by his interpretation of the Igbo concept of chi, one’s personal god. He frequently recites the proverb that “when a man says yes his chi says yes also,” a saying that underscores the Igbo respect for individual initiative. Yet Okonkwo’s successes and aggressive nature lead him to forget that this freedom has limitations. His belief in his own ability to say yes strongly enough blinds him to necessary accommodations.
In a sense, Okonkwo represents a native culture threatened by the coming of Christianity and European ways. Like Okonkwo, the Umuofians face separation from their past, and like him they face a future that will require difficult compromises. Thus, Okonkwo’s demise foreshadows the elimination of traditional Igbo culture. Yet Achebe carefully describes the adaptability of Igbo society. Its decentralization and nonhierarchical structure allow for change. Okonkwo’s friend Obierika represents this adaptive force within Umuofian society, acting as a counterforce to Okonkwo’s inflexibility. Obierika argues for accommodation, but Okonkwo cannot accept such advice. His greatest flaw is his inability to adapt to cultural change. At the end of the novel, Okonkwo stands alone, a self-proclaimed defender of an inflexible traditionalism that contradicts the true flexibility of his culture. Okonkwo is an exceptional individual who is destroyed by enormous cultural forces, but the potential heroism of his final act of defiance is ironically undercut by his alienation from his clan.
In a final ironic commentary on Okonkwo’s misguided heroism, Achebe tells his reader that the District Commissioner plans to include a paragraph on Okonkwo’s unusual behavior in his projected book The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger, a reminder that Okonkwo’s inability to understand cultural change is a small reflection of a more pervasive blindness.
Okonkwo (oh-KOHN-kwoh), the protagonist, one of the leaders of the Ibo community of Umuofia. He struggles from humble beginnings to achieve high status yet is still haunted by feelings of insecurity associated with his former lack of status. He is now a great warrior and wealthy farmer, with two barns full of yams, three wives, and two titles; he is also a lord in the clan. This string of successes is interrupted when he accidentally kills a man and is forced into exile for seven years. His plans for advancement are of necessity put on hold, and he chafes under this banishment. While he is gone, European missionaries establish themselves in the midst of Umuofia, make converts, and subtly undermine the old order. Under the impact of Westernization and modernization, things begin to fall apart. When Okonkwo returns, he finds Umuofia much changed and its former independence and integrity dangerously threatened by the new ways. He tries to rally his people and save his community. He is the most authentic representative and protector of traditional society. He rejects the new values that are subverting the old order and crosses the point of no return by killing a messenger of the Europeans to force his clansmen to make a choice. When they let the other messengers escape, he realizes that his community will not go to war against the Europeans. He commits suicide, which is a great evil and prevents him from being buried among his people. His tragic end underscores that there can be no compromise between traditional and modern society. Things must of necessity fall apart.
Unoka (ew-NOH-kah), Okonkwo’s father. Lazy, shiftless, and always in debt, he is a man without title and unable to provide for his family. He is a good storyteller and a fine musician, the life of any party.
Nwoye (NWOH-yay), Okonkwo’s eldest son. Sensitive and deeply troubled by certain Umuofian practices, such as the exposure of twins in the Evil Forest and the sacrifice of his beloved companion, Ikemefuna, he was attracted to the music, hope, and poetry of Christianity, and he converted. His actions remind Okonkwo of the failures of his father and raise the specter that he too might have these flaws.
Chielo (chee-OH-loh), the priestess of Agbala, the Oracle of the Hills and the Caves. Her approval is needed for major decisions, such as going to war. In everyday life, she is an ordinary woman, but as priestess few dare to ignore her divinations.
Ekwefi (ay-KWAY-fee), Okonkwo’s second wife. The village beauty, she was captivated by Okonkwo’s victory over the Cat in the greatest wrestling match within living memory. She ran away from her husband to live with Okonkwo. She bears ten children but loses nine in infancy. A daughter, Ezinma, survives, and Ekwefi lavishes special care and affection on her.
Ezinma (ay-ZEEN-mah), Okonkwo and Ekwefi’s daughter. Intelligent and beautiful, she best understands the complex moods of her father and best interprets the appropriate course of action. Okonkwo wishes she were a male. She is his favorite child, and he plans her marriage as a logical part of his rise to power. Chielo calls her “daughter” and is probably training her to be the new priestess.
Ikemefuna (ee-kay-may-FEW-nah), a fifteen-year-old boy from a neighboring village. Okonkwo treats him like a son, and Nwoye learns under his tutelage and regards him as the older brother he never had. Given to Umuofia in atonement for the murder of a clansman’s wife, he is placed under the guardianship of Okonkwo. After about three years, the Oracle of the Hills and the Caves orders his sacrifice. Wishing to show his strength and his loyalty to village traditions, Okonkwo strikes the fatal blow.
Obierika (oh-bee-ay-REE-kah), a friend of Okonkwo. He manages Okonkwo’s affairs while Okonkwo is in exile, warns him that the law does not require him to participate in Ikemefuna’s sacrifice, and has him buried by outsiders when he commits suicide.
Mr. Brown, the first European missionary in Umuofia. Respectful of Umuofia’s traditions, he wisely guides the affairs of the early Christian church, and its membership and power grows.
The Reverend James Smith
The Reverend James Smith, a narrow-minded missionary who succeeds Mr. Brown. He brooks no compromises with native traditions and insists on the rights and privileges of the Christian community over those of Umuofia. His fanaticism and nonbending stance set the stage for the imposition of European rule of government and law.