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Things Fall Apart

by Chinua Achebe

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Discussion Topic

Okonkwo's character and motivations in relation to the themes of Things Fall Apart

Summary:

Okonkwo's character and motivations in Things Fall Apart reflect themes of tradition, change, and personal pride. His fear of failure and desire to avoid his father's perceived weakness drive his actions. This results in a rigid adherence to traditional values and resistance to colonial influences, ultimately leading to his tragic downfall as the society around him transforms.

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What does Okonkwo's relationship with his father reveal about the themes in Things Fall Apart?

Okonkwo has a difficult relationship with his father, Unoka, who is a lazy debtor. Unoka is a relatively peaceful man, who enjoys playing his flute and indulging in palm wine. Unoka is also described as an ill-fated man, who dies of swelling in his stomach and limbs, which is an abomination to the earth goddess. Unoka ends up dying a untitled man and is carried to the Evil Forest.

Okonkwo fears becoming like his father and is ashamed to be his son. Out of contempt for his father, Okonkwo works to become a successful man with multiple wives and a large compound. Unlike his father, Okonkwo is aggressive and masculine. The only emotion that Okonkwo displays is anger, and he is known throughout Umuofia as a fearless warrior. Okonkwo is also a celebrated wrestler and ends up earning numerous titles. Despite Okonkwo's accomplishments, his excessive masculinity, stubbornness, and anger lead to his downfall.

Okonkwo's difficult relationship with his father thematically correlates to Okonkwo's anger and repressed emotions, which contribute to his demise. Through Okonkwo's negative feelings towards his father, Achebe explores themes of masculinity, success, and fear. Essentially, Okonkwo's accomplishments stem from his fear of becoming like Unoka but adversely reflect his relationships with family members and influence his terrible decisions throughout the novel.

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How does Okonkwo relate to the themes of Things Fall Apart?

Okonkwo and his actions are related to several themes in "Things Fall Apart". One of the major themes of the novel is the struggle and consequences of holding on to custom and tradition.During the entire novel, Okonkwo tries to live up to his perception of "traditional standards of masculinity". He is disparate to overcome what he thought were his father's failures as a man. This means that he cannot adjust to the changes in his tribe once the missionaries arrive. This inability to accept change destroys Okonkwo. However, another theme of the novel is choice and consequences. Okonkwo makes a very conscious choice when he is a young man to overcome what he considers to be his father's lazy reputation. He gains the respect of his tribe through hard work and the tribe rewards him by honoring him as a great warrior.But when Okonkwo become to proud, he begins to do things her should not do. He kills Ikemefuna because he fears being thought of as weak. A bullet from his gun kills a young man at a funeral. So Okonkwo is banished. However, Okonkwo never takes responsibility for his actions; instead he blames them on his chi, or life force. This lack of acceptance for his own behavior leads to another theme, that of alienation and loneliness. His exile isolates Okonkwo and her must start building his reputation again. However, his unwillingness to accept the changes in his village and adapt to them, cause tragic consequences. Finally, things fall apart for Okonkwo and destroy him.

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What motivates the character Okonkwo in Things Fall Apart?

Okonkwo is primarily motivated by a deep-seated need to differentiate from his father. Specifically, he is intrinsically focused on demonstrating his complete alignment with the traditional masculine ethos.

The text tells about how Okonkwo persevered and prevailed during a miserable yam planting season. First, an eight-week drought destroyed many harvests. Next, the rains came with a ferocious intensity, further destroying more yam crops. Many farmers endured great loss that year, and some were prompted to take their lives in desperation. Okonkwo, however, endured and prevailed.

Yet, his pride was marred by anger and frustration. Okonkwo was his family's primary breadwinner. As such, he had to support his entire family, including his mother, sisters, and father (Unoka). Okonkwo especially despised Unoka's weakness. As a son, he had to do the work of the father. For his part, Unoka was content to depend upon Okonkwo. Unoka's only contribution was philosophical words of advice about life and suffering.

This irritated Okonkwo greatly. So, for the rest of his adulthood, Okonkwo was determined to prove his masculine prowess in every way: in battle, in material pursuits, and in romantic conquests.

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What motivates the character Okonkwo in Things Fall Apart?

Likely Okonkwo's biggest motivation is that of trying not to be seen as his father was, a weakling or a failure.  This drives him to work incredibly hard, to fight like a lion and acquire two titles and become the veritable big man on campus in Umuofia.  It also contributes to what is likely his biggest flaw, his single-mindedness combined with a wicked temper.

He is unable to think outside the bounds of Igbo culture and this governs many of the decisions he makes.  Even after being exiled, he cannot think of any other system as having anything to offer and can only see the white man and christianity as a threat to which the only response is blind and angry resistance rather than any thought to compromise, etc.

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What type of person is Okonkwo in Things Fall Apart?

Okonkwo is a man who looks ferocious on the outside but on the inside he is full of fear. His main fear is being thought of like his father, a man who was seen as weak and lazy by his tribe. Many of Okonkwo's actions can be traced back to this fear. Okonkwo hates gentleness, laziness, inaction and overt actions of sentimentality. He doesn't allow himself to enjoy life, his wives, his material success or his children. He rules his family harshly and even beats one wife. He acts like a very proud man and pushes himself to be the best warrior in his tribe. But underneath all of his accomplishments and pride, there is always a fear that he might turn out like his weak father. Thus,many of his actions in the novel belie the idea that Okonkwo is truly brave when in fact his bravery is a cover-up for the shame of his heredity.

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What type of person is Okonkwo in Things Fall Apart?

Okonkwo is the protagonist of Things Fall Apart, and some might even call him a tragic hero. Okonkwo values masculinity and strength and is loyal to the traditions of his tribe (for the most part). His father was poor and a musician; Okonkwo is ashamed of his father, so he tries to be nothing like him. Instead, Okonkwo wins a famous wrestling match and is a successful yam farmer. He values hard work, and in his tribe, having a thriving yam crop is seen as manly. He is one of the leaders of his tribe at the start of the novel, and he is well-respected. He takes a couple of actions near the beginning of the book, though, that are criticized by other men in the tribe. For one, he beats one of his wives during the Week of Peace. Even though the other men agree that he was justified in beating his wife, it is not permitted to do so during that week. Furthermore, he is the one who strikes the deadly machete blow that kills Ikemefuna, a boy being held hostage from another tribe but who lived with Okonkwo's family and befriended his son. Other tribal leaders believe it was not right for him to go along on the journey during which Ikemefuna would be killed (as decreed by the gods), let alone be the one to actually kill him. Okonkwo's personal bias toward masculinity affects his relationships with his children. His son is not manly enough for Okonkwo, so they are not close, while his daughter Ezinma is Okonkwo's favorite. Unfortunately for Okonkwo, though, he can only lament that she was not born his son. 

The pivotal moment in Okonkwo's life comes when he accidentally kills the son of an elder tribesman at the elder's funeral. Because it was accidental, it is termed a "female crime." He is exiled for seven years to his mother's village. While he is away, missionaries come to his home village and exert their influence. By the time he returns, the tribe and village are no longer the people nor place he once knew. He and a few other characters stand for tradition and resist the missionaries, but this is to no avail. At the end of the novel, Okonkwo kills himself because he does not think he can live in his village in its current state. He believes the tribe has abandoned its roots, and he cannot bear to participate in it nor witness it any further. 

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