Last Updated on April 23, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 854
The protagonist of Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart, Okonkwo is a stubborn, impatient, and fear-driven character who represents power, toxic masculinity, and traditional values. He is ashamed of his father, Unoka, because Unoka was constantly in debt to others and lived a financially unsuccessful life. This shame drives Okonkwo's attitude and fear of failure. Okonkwo desires to be as unlike his father as possible.
This sets up Okonkwo's tragic flaw and role as a tragic hero. He is a powerful and successful man, but he rejects of his father’s kindly and calm traits. This causes him to mistreat his son and family, react aggressively instead of thoughtfully, and to view sensitivity as weakness. Okonkwo is described as “a man of action, a man of war.” He is intimidating, with a large body and a certain way of walking and breathing that suggests personal prowess. However, Okonkwo has a stammer, and when he is unable to express himself with words, he resorts to violence.
Unlike his father, Okonkwo is successful. He becomes the “greatest wrestler in the nine villages” and a wealthy farmer. He has three wives and two titles in his village Iguedo of the clan Umuofia. Okonkwo also demonstrates his skill and power in two inter-tribal wars. When he was young, Okonkwo gained a high and revered position within Umuofia through his many achievements. Okonkwo’s hardworking nature is influenced by his father’s inability to leave him anything, such as a farm, a title, or a young wife. Okonkwo had to work on his own to achieve success, engaging in sharecropping and taking care of his mother and siblings when his father wouldn’t.
Okonkwo treats each of his children differently. He is often disappointed in and rough with his eldest son, Nwoye, whereas he appreciates his daughter Ezinma’s keen understanding. Okonkwo also inwardly cares for Ikemefuna, who was traded to the village of Umuofia to stop a war. With Ikemefuna under his care, Okonkwo allows him to act much like his son, although Okonkwo never shows the boy outward affection. To Okonkwo, affection is weakness. When the village elders decide to sacrifice Ikemefuna, they tell Okonkwo not to take part in the killing. However, Okonkwo’s kills Ikemefuna himself.
Since Okonkwo is defined by his flaws and fears, he is driven to kill Ikemefuna out of fear of showing weakness. This shows how Okonkwo is willing to commit moral wrongs at whatever cost in order to be different from his father. Still, Okonkwo feels guilt over this action, even if only for a short time. Later on, at the funeral of the village’s eldest man, Ogbuefi Ezeudu, Okonkwo’s gun accidentally explodes and kills one of Ogbuefi’s sons. Killing a clansman, even accidentally, is considered a major crime within Umuofia. Okonkwo has no choice but to go into exile for seven years. Okonkwo then leaves with his family and returns to his “motherland” of Mbanta.
After Okonkwo is banished, he loses his hope and ambition. His desire to become one of the lords of the clan is ruined, and Okonkwo feels that he has nothing to strive for. Uchendu, Okonkwo’s elderly cousin who helps him live in Mbanta, chastises Okonkwo for this attitude, and Okonkwo slowly begins to live as he used to. However, things in the area are changing, and Christian missionaries have come to the villages and converted some of the local people. The entrance of white men into Okonkwo’s world confuses him, and he rejects the new religion and decides the missionaries are crazy. However, his son Nwoye converts to Christianity and leaves Okonkwo, his mother, and his siblings. Okonkwo is ashamed of this and realizes that Nwoye is like his grandfather Unoka. Okonkwo believes it is his fault for raising Nwoye with too much “fire,” as Nwoye has been pushed to become the “ashes.”
Okonkwo carefully plans his return to Iguedo, but despite all his efforts, he finds that his village, and Umuofia in general, has changed. The missionaries have built trading stores and a jail, among other things. In doing so, they took the attention of the people away from Okonkwo’s return. Okonkwo’s hope of returning to power and greatness is dashed, and he is disappointed by the village’s decision not to fight against the white men. When tensions build, the nine villages meet to discuss starting a war against the white men. Okonkwo kills one of the messengers of the white men in his anger and hatred. As a result the men of the villages become even more conflicted instead of banding together. Okonkwo, realizing the fate of his village is to be taken over, kills himself. In Igbo society, committing suicide is a desecration to the earth and to the clan. Okonkwo ends up following the path of his own father, whose death was also shameful. Okonkwo wished to be a hero and a great man of his clan. However, his death is not only tragic, but also highlights the tragedy of the end of a pre-colonized Africa and the beginning of a colonized Africa.
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