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Things Fall Apart

by Chinua Achebe

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An exploration of Okonkwo's character and his relationships with his father and his own children in Things Fall Apart

Summary:

Okonkwo's character in Things Fall Apart is defined by his fear of weakness and failure, traits he despises in his father, Unoka. This fear drives him to be stern and often harsh with his own children, particularly Nwoye, whom he perceives as weak. Okonkwo's relationship with his children is strained as he tries to mold them into his ideal of strength and masculinity.

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Is Okonkwo a good or bad father in Things Fall Apart?

Okonkwo is a good father in that he is an extremely hard-working man that is able to financially provide for his family. He is a respected member of the community, and he embraces his leadership roles. Okonkwo also recognizes traits in his own father that he doesn't like, and he works at not emulating those behaviors. All of these things are positive traits that Okonkwo models for his children.

Unfortunately, for every good fatherly trait that he has, a reader can find an equally bad fatherly trait in Okonkwo. It's not that Okonkwo only doesn't want to be like his father. Okonkwo genuinely fears becoming that. He genuinely feels that his father was too feminine, and Okonkwo tries to compensate by being hyper-masculine. He beats his wives and doesn't have a good handle on his emotions. He is driven by fear, and that leads to destructive behavior, like killing Ikemefuna and disowning his oldest son. Okonkwo holds his children to high standards. That is a good thing; however, he can't figure out how to show that he loves them, and that is a bad thing.

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Is Okonkwo a good or bad father in Things Fall Apart?

In the novel Things Fall Apart, Okonkwo displays dominance among his family and clan, and he is well respected. He is famous for his personal achievements, such as defeating the Cat in a wrestling tournament, and holds many titles. He is a hardworking and successful farmer, which results in his wealth. However, Okonkwo also fears failure, rules his household with a heavy hand, and displays a great amount of anger.

"Okonkwo never showed any emotion openly, unless it be the emotion of anger. To show affection was a sign of weakness; the only thing worth demonstrating was strength." (pg. 28)

Although he admires his children, he does not often show them affection, because he believes showing affection is a sign of weakness. Many of Okonkwo's actions could be used to justify the idea that he is a "bad" father. He threatens his adopted son with a big stick when the son refuses to eat, he threatens to break the jaw of his oldest son for the way he cuts yams, and he openly beats his wives in front of his children. Okonkwo's involvement in the killing of his adopted son and the lack of attention towards and respect for his oldest son, Nwoye, ultimately results in Nwoye's conversion to Christianity, partially to get away from Okonkwo.

No matter the lack of affection he shows, Okonkwo does instill in his children a good and solid work ethic, which could be considered a trait of a "good" father. His favorite child, Ezinma, whom he wishes was born a boy, does not whine or question any job given to her; she does it with a good attitude. Despite his departure from the clan and family, Nwoye always shows respect for others' differences. However, regardless of the morals he instills in his children, Okonkwo's violence, threats, and lack of attention and affection give grounds for him being labeled a "bad" father.

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Is Okonkwo a good or bad father in Things Fall Apart?

Okonkwo is a good father in that he provides for his family and protects them when necessary. He is also a successful man who demonstrates to his children the importance of hard work and motivation. He teaches Ikemefuna and Nwoye necessary skills to become successful farmers and even travels to the Oracle of the Hills and Caves in order to protect Enzima. However, Okonkwo is a callous, strict man who does not express his feelings of admiration to his children. Okonkwo believes that any form of positive emotion or communication makes him look weak. For this reason, he does not tell Enzima how much he admires her or lets Ikemefuna know that he is proud of him. Okonkwo is also intolerant and insensitive. He neglects his son Nwoye because he feels like Nwoye is too feminine simply because he does not share any of his "masculine" interests. Although Ikemefuna is not his son, he takes part in his murder despite being told not to participate. Nwoye ends up resenting his father and Okonkwo's children never develop a healthy relationship with their father because of his insensitive disposition. 

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What makes Okonkwo's father popular in Things Fall Apart?

I suppose the answer to this question regarding Chinua Achebe's novel Things Fall Apart depends upon your definition of the term useful. In that case, I'll answer it in two ways: 

  1. Unoka's musicality: Unoka is described as an incredibly talented musician, which has a symbiotic relationship with his love for leisure and feasts. This skill might be seen as useful in a culture where many traditions rely on music as an important component. 

  2. Unoka's effect on Okonkwo: Much of Okonkwo's character has developed directly in opposition to Unoka's own defining personality traits. Because of Unoka's laziness and "shamelessness", Okonkwo becomes an incredibly well-respected and traditional Igbo man. In this way, Unoka's "failings" positively impact Okonkwo's character development if perceived through a traditionalist Igbo perspective. 
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In Things Fall Apart, why was Okonkwo famous?

Okonkwo is famous because of how he is able to define his identity in conjunction with socially established norms of "success."  Okonkwo makes himself in the Igbo image of success.  He defines himself through his notable strength, vision of masculinity, and in being what others deem as a "success." He is a strong warrior, able to defeat worthy adversaries, and defend that which is his.  He shows this with his defeat of Amalinze, someone who had remained undefeated for years.  His reputation as a wrestler is something of legend.  He is also famous for being economically successful.  Okonkwo is able to generate wealth through his own prowess and skill, reflective in his advancements in farming.   In marrying three women and serving as father to many children, the Igbo notion of strength and success are parts of Okonkwo's identity.  He demonstrates success to such a degree that he is famous for his accomplishments, moving him closer to having titles of respectability conferred upon him.

Okonkwo is also famous because he actively defines himself in opposition to his past.  Okonkwo is driven to craft his identity in stark opposition to his father. Where his father had debt, Okonkwo refuses to hold any situation which could develop as a debit.  Where his father was lazy, Okonkwo is strong and focused. Okonkwo develops a name for himself by not being scared of things, like war and conflict, that had scared his father.  Okonkwo embodies family responsibility where his father abandoned them.  While his father was "soft" and deemed as unmanly, Okonkwo defines himself as the archetype of what it means to be a man.  In this regard, Okonkwo is famous for being everything his father is not.   In these ways, the exposition of the novel establishes why Okonkwo is famous.

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