Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1404
Essential Passage 1: Chapter 1
Okonkwo was well known throughout the nine villages and even beyond. His fame rested on solid personal achievements. As a young man of eighteen he had brought honor to his village by throwing Amalinze the Cat. Amalinze was the great wrestler who for seven years was unbeaten, from Umuofia to Mbaino. He was called the Cat because his back would never touch the earth. It was this man that Okonkwo threw in a fight which the old men agreed was one of the fiercest since the founder of their town engaged a spirit of the wild for seven days and seven nights.
Okonkwo, the protagonist of the story, is a prominent member of the Igbo tribe in Nigeria in the 1890s, prior to the widespread control of Great Britain, the colonial power of the time. He is a man of action rather than reflection. His fame is centered on his strength, especially his physical strength. From an early age, he has shown himself proficient in the art of wrestling, which is of great importance in the villages of Umuofia. Defeating the most prominent wrestler in the area, Okonkwo gains a reputation as one of the finest men in the area, and he has great hopes to prosper even more. In a culture where courage is exhibited through physical prowess, Okonkwo has few peers. As long as action is required, Okonkwo can be counted on to lead the way. This allows him to acquire titles, three wives, a successful farm, and a place among the leaders of the community.
Essential Passage 2: Chapter 14
Okonkwo and his family worked very hard to plant a new farm. But it was like beginning life anew without the vigor and enthusiasm of youth, like learning to become left-handed in old age. Work no longer had for him the pleasure it used to have, and when there was no work to do he sat in a silent half-sleep.
His life had been ruled by a great passion—to become one of the lords of the clan. That had been his life-spring. And he had all but achieved it. Then everything had been broken. He had been cast out of his clan like a fish onto a dry, sandy beach, panting. Clearly his personal god or chi was not made for great things. A man could not rise beyond the destiny of his chi. The saying of the elders was not true—that if a man said yea his chi also affirmed. Here was a man whose chi said nay despite his own affirmation.
Okonkwo accidentally killed the son of one of the clan members, when his gun explodes and a piece of the metal pierces the youth’s heart. Because it was an accident, Okonkwo is punished to seven years’ exile to his mother’s homeland. His home is destroyed, and Okonkwo and his family leave with only a few of his possessions. In his new home, Okonkwo tries to start over from scratch. He begins a new farm, but he no longer enjoys work as he used to. Before, he was working toward becoming one of the lords of the clan, and he had come close to succeeding. He had accumulated two titles and many yams. However, now that he is in exile, his plans have been dashed. Okonkwo begins to doubt the teachings and traditions of his elders. Okonkwo does not believe that his chi will respond positively to his work and efforts. His faith in his gods begins to slip.
Essential Passage 3: Chapter 25
Then they came to the tree from which Okonkwo’s body was dangling, and they stopped dead.
“Perhaps your men can help us bring him down and bury him,” said Obierika.
“We have sent for strangers from another village to do it for us, but they may be a long time coming.”
The District Commissioner changed instantaneously. The resolute administrator in him gave way to the student of primitive customs.
“Why can’t you take him down yourselves?” he asked.
“It is against our custom,” said one of the men. “It is an abomination for a man to take his own life. It is an offense against the Earth, and a man who commits it will not be buried by his clansmen. His body is evil, and only strangers may touch it. That is why we ask your people to bring him down, because you are strangers.”
Okonkwo and his family have returned from their seven years’ exile to their own village to find much has changed. The Christian missionaries have established a church, and many of the villagers have become converts, rejecting the old traditions. Okonkwo in anger wants to destroy the white men and destroy their church, but he and the others who joined him were arrested and held prisoner for several days. On their release, Okonkwo realizes that the old ways of life are over. At his despair over the lost traditions, he commits suicide, thus breaking one of the strongest of those old traditions, that which prohibited suicide. Because he took his own life, his clansmen are not allowed to retrieve his body, and he is not allowed to be buried with his family. His body is now considered evil, and only someone outside of the clan may touch it. Thus Okonkwo’s friend Obierika asks the British District Commissioner if he will take it down for them. He gets some of his men to do the task, since he does not want it later said that he lowered himself to such an undignified task as removing dead bodies.
Analysis of Essential Passages
Okonkwo, of the Igbo (Ibo) tribe of Nigeria, is a tragic hero, destined to be destroyed both by the fall of his civilization and his own fatal flaws. Struck down by his inability to control his traditional way of life or his own anger, Okonkwo represents a season of change that struck many countries of the world as they adjusted from centuries of their own culture to the control of colonial powers.
Okonkwo is a man of action. He takes pride in, and is given respect for, his “solid personal achievements.” This pride (hubris) contributes to his downfall, as it triggers his anger when events retreat from his own control. Wrestling, the physical control of an opponent, is typical of his need to present himself solely through action and force. As a farmer, he readily accepts the unpredictability of the weather, thus affecting his crops, but he cannot accept the unpredictability of human nature, whether it is his son or the British colonial officials. Rage erupts when he is crossed.
It is ironic that, despite his many brutal attacks on his wives and children out of rage, it is because of an accidental death that Okonkwo is exiled from his tribe for seven years. This exemplifies yet another incident that is beyond his control. Theoretically, his anger can be controlled by himself, yet the explosion of the ancient gun was an act over which he had no power.
Not only in his own strength but in the strength of the tribal traditions does Okonkwo gain meaning. His concern for their continuance, especially in the face of the invasion of white missionaries and colonial officials, is the foundation of his strength. He would fight and die to maintain these traditions. However, his anger repeatedly leads him to break the traditions of the clan. Beating his wife during the Week of Peace, for example, is expressly forbidden by the religious culture of the clan. Yet Okonkwo’s anger places him beyond the tradition he is trying to protect. In the end, through losing the fight to keep the traditions from destruction by the colonial officials, Okonkwo breaks the strongest tradition of all: the injunction against suicide. He has destroyed the very thing he was trying to save. In this, Okonkwo, as the tragic hero, fails in his quest, unable to save his land from the destruction that he has brought. As with many tragic heroes, his fate is determined from the very beginning, his tragic flaw clearly making itself known. Okonkwo’s deep-seated anger, based on his disdain for the weakness of his father’s failure, has set him up for his own failure. His inability to control himself made him unable to control the fate of his clan, ensuring that both will fall apart.
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