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Things Fall Apart

by Chinua Achebe

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Does the pattern of rejection in Things Fall Apart between Okonkwo and his son reflect inevitable generational conflict, or is there more?

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The theme of generational conflict (and, especially, of father and son relations) is significant in Things Fall Apart. Okonkwo is involved in several episodes that relate to parental-type responsibilities and in which his behavior creates problems. His conflicts between caring for Ikemefuna and his clan loyalty, which lead to his killing the captive boy, create moral and ethical dilemmas that stir up feelings he cannot fully understand. Although it is accidental, his role in killing a boy who is the clan patriarch's son—and thus in a sense everyone's son—is the inciting event that drives him into exile and away from his own son.

His specific relationship with Nwoye becomes more crucial in the latter half of the book. The years of exile take their toll, and upon his return, Okonkwo finds that the British have made significant inroads in their quest to take over. Missionization is one of the main arms of their colonizing strategy. Rather than just a father–son disagreement, Okonkwo's opposition to Nwoye's new interests stems from his deep suspicion of the British evangelizers' motives.

Destroying the church proves futile, and, in recognizing that he cannot stop these vast social changes, Okonkwe decides that his own life must end. His defeatism and death and his son's conversion mark the transition to British colonial rule and the older generation's sense that resistance is futile.

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Okonkwo was ashamed of his father. He was determined to be nothing like his father. His father was called agabala--the term that translated into woman. He was considered womanish or effeminate because he was afraid of war and the sight of blood. He was a musician. He did not work. He sat around drinking palm wine while  playing his flute. Unoka owed money to many of his neighboring tribesmen.

No doubt, Okonkwo had every right to not respect his father. However, he goes to the extreme in not being like his father. He did not want to resemble his father in any way:

While Okonkwo's appearance portrays a man people fear, it belies the terror Okonkwo hides within himself. For his entire life, Okonkwo has had to deal with having a father who is considered weak and lazy—"agabala" in the tribe's terms. The tribe detests weak, effeminate men. Okonkwo is terrified to think that the tribe will liken him to his father. He is even more afraid of recognizing in himself some semblance of weakness that he sees in his father.

Truly, Okonkwo despised every thing his father resembled. He had no respect for his father. As a boy growing up, Okonkow had to deal with others making light of his father. Now Okonkwo has a son of his own. He beats him for fear that he will grow up as his father Unoka. Okonkwo fears that his son Nwoye will become effeminate as his father Unoka. Nwoye lives in fear of his father. Ironically, Nwoye does not desire to be like his father Okonkwo. He grows up with the same dislike of his father. He fears Okonkwo. He dreads to be in his presence:

Nwoye knows that he should enjoy the masculine rites of his fellow tribesmen, but he prefers his mother's company and the stories she tells. He questions and is disturbed by many of the tribe's customs. Okonkwo beats and nags Nwoye, making Nwoye more unhappy and further distancing him from the ways of the clan.

While Okonkwo feels he is doing the right thing by his son, Nwoye is driven further away from his father with all the harsh treatment. Okonkwo does not show love or concern to Nwoye. Nwoye does not feel loved by his father:

[Okonkwo] will not allow himself to show love, to enjoy the fruits of hard work, or to demonstrate concern for others, nor can he tolerate these in other men. He rules his family unit with an iron fist and expects everyone to act on his commands.

It is no wonder that Nwoye leaves the tribe and joins the missionaries. He is seeking for answers to his troubling questions about Okonkwo and the other tribesmen. Nwoye loses respect for his own father. He does not want to resemble him. He has the same feelings about Okonkwo that Okonkwo had about his own father. There is no balance in the father-son relationship. Nwoye would rather leave the tribe than to be like his own father. Nwoye's feelings are personal, much more than a generational conflict. 

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