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Things Fall Apart

by Chinua Achebe

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Compare the roles of strength and gender in Things Fall Apart.

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It would be useful to consider this excellent question by focusing on the character of Okonkwo. It is important to note that his character is built around a crucial paradox. He is famed for his manly strength and attributes in a culture that despises any form of weakness in men. Thus he strives and pushes himself to become as manly as possible, and despises any show of sentimentality of emotion. This leads him, for example, to participate in the death of his adopted son, Ikemefuna, even when he was advised not to. He joined in the murder, fearing that others would consider him weak if he stood back. This desire to constantly prove himself emerges from the life of his father, who was renowned for his laziness and lack of manly qualities. Note how, in Chapter Three, which gives us crucial background information about Okonkwo and his father, it talks about how this desperate desire to prove himself emerges:

But in spite of these disadvantages, he had begun even in his father's lifetime to lay the foundations of a prosperous future. It was slow and painful. But he threw himself into it like one possessed. And indeed he was possessed by the fear of his father's contemptible life and shameful death.

Thus it is ironic that the show of great strength and masculinity that Okonkwo exudes actually has its basis in a profound fear: that he will be identified with the same lack of strength and masculine qualities as his father. This is what drives Okonkwo to always work and to expect obedience and the same standards that he holds from his son, Nwoye. In his tremendous masculinity also lies the seeds of his own destruction, as he is unable to back down or negotiate.

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Consider the presentation of strength and gender in Things Fall Apart.

The role of strength and gender in this novel is particularly important when it comes to considering the character of Okonkwo and what drives him to do everything he can to be considered a man by his people. The first few chapters provide crucial information about his background, and in particular about his relationship with his father, who was a lazy man, dependent on others and unable to support his own family. Okonkwo, deeply shamed by his father, did everything he could to be different, and to commit himself to work hard and not be considered "feminine" or unmanly. Note the following quote from Chapter 3 that gives the reader a clear indication of how Okonkwo committed himself to a very different kind of life:

But in spite of these disadvantages, he had begun even in his father's lifetime to lay the foundations of a prosperous future. It was slow and painful. But he threw himself into it like one possessed. And indeed he was possessed by the fear of his father's contemptible life and shameful death.

It is this "fear" that drives Okonkwo to be more masculine than the other men of the village, which can be seen in his participation of the slaughter of Ikemefuna, even though his friend counsels him to not go with the other elders as they lead the boy to his death. It is also this "fear" that leads to Okonkwo's own downfall, as he becomes dominated by anger and is unable to back down. Strength and gender are thus represented in the character of Okonkwo as leading him to excesses that result in significant trouble for him as he drives himself to be as masculine as he can possibly be.

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