Last Updated on January 4, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1375
Essential Passage 1: Chapter 1
When Unoka died he had taken no title at all and he was heavily in debt. Any wonder then that his son Okonkwo was ashamed of him? Fortunately, among these people a man was judged according to his worth and not according to the worth of his father. Okonkwo was clearly cut out for great things. He was still young but he had won fame as the greatest wrestler in the nine villages. He was a wealthy farmer and had two barns full of yams, and had just married his third wife. To crown it all he had taken two titles and had shown incredible prowess in two inter-tribal wars. And so although Okonkwo was still young, he was already one of the greatest men of his time. Age was respected among his people, but achievement was revered. As the elders said, if a child washed his hands he could eat with kings. Okonkwo had clearly washed his hands and so he ate with kings and elders.
Okonkwo is a man of “solid achievements,” based on his physical strength and ability to grow and harvest an abundance of yams (a sign of individual wealth among the Igbo). He has great reason to be proud of his achievements, and even more so when contrasted with those of his father. Unoka was the exact opposite of his son. He took no titles (and titles resulted in increased status in the clan); he was also heavily in debt.
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Unoka was a laughingstock among the nine villages. Yet his son bears none of the weaknesses that debased his father. Through Okonkwo’s hard work, he gained wealth, yet Unoka’s laziness brings shame to his son. With a full barn and a full home, Okonkwo displays himself as a man of property. He has not one barn, but two. He has three wives. His skill in battle also brings him honor. Even at a young age, he had become a leader in the community and seemed destined for greatness. It is through his achievements, not through his age, that Okonkwo is revered among the Igbo people.
Essential Passage 2: Chapter 8
“Nwoye is old enough to impregnate a woman. At his age I was already fending for myself. No, my friend, he is not too young. A chick that will grow into a cock can be spotted the very day it hatches. I have done my best to make Nwoye grow into a man, but there is too much of his mother in him.”
“Too much of his grandfather,” Obierika thought, but he did not say it. The same thought also came to Okonkwo’s mind. But he had long learned how to lay that ghost. Whenever the thought of his father’s weakness and failure troubled him he expelled it by thinking about his own strength and success. And so he did now. His mind went to his latest show of manliness.
Okonkwo takes great pride in his place in the clan. He is known for his strength and courage. Yet his oldest son, Nwoye, is nothing like him. He is lazy, resisting the level of commitment to work that his father has. He is weak: Okonkwo states that “a bowl of pounded yams can throw him in a wrestling match.” Okonkwo sees similar weakness in his other two boys. It is only in his daughter Ezinma that he can see some of those traits that brought him so much renown. His friend Obierika tries to calm his fears, stating that the children are still very young and still have much room to grow. Yet, as Okonkwo points out, Nwoye is old enough to become a father and is lagging behind his father at that age.
Okonkwo despairs that anything can come of Nwoye, believing that there is “too much of his mother in him.” Obierika, however, sees a parallel between Nwoye and Unoka, the boy’s grandfather. They both exhibit a strong strain of weakness. Okonkwo sees it also, but when confronted with the failings of his father, he turns his eyes on himself and focuses on his own achievements, believing himself incapable of the weakness found in his father and his son.
Essential Passage 3: Chapter 24
“The greatest obstacle in Umuofia,” Okonkwo thought bitterly, “is that coward, Egonwanne. His sweet tongue can change fire into cold ash. When he speaks he moves our men to impotence. If they had ignored his womanish wisdom five years ago, we would not have come to this.” He ground his teeth. “Tomorrow he will tell them that our fathers never fought a ‘war of blame.’ If they listen to him I shall leave them and plan my own revenge.”
Following seven years’ exile in his motherland, Okonkwo has returned to his home in Umuofia to find it in chaos. The invasion of the white man, in the form of Christian missionaries and British colonial officials, has begun the destruction of the Igbo traditions. The missionary they had come to respect has departed due to ill health, replaced by another who has no sensitivity to the people with whom he is working. As a result, the Christian church is destroyed. Okonkwo and several others are arrested and imprisoned in the white man’s jail, subjected to humiliation and punishment. On his release, Okonkwo is more determined than ever to exact revenge. Yet the messenger of the clan, Egonwanne, seeks to placate both sides. Okonkwo sees no hope, and no desire, for peace. Knowing that the message of conciliation will be presented to the clan to avoid bloodshed, Okonkwo, in his pride, vows to plan his own revenge.
Analysis of Essential Passages
As with most tragic heroes, pride (hubris) is the ultimate downfall of Okonkwo. Despite the great abilities and opportunities that come his way, Okonkwo eventually throws them away through his insistence on placing himself first, above his family, his clan, and the very traditions that he is fighting so hard to maintain and protect.
From an early age, Okonkwo has shown strength, courage, and ability in facing physical challenges. Represented by his victory in the wrestling match with an older man, Okonkwo’s great promise will lead him to phenomenal success in his personal and communal life. His very physical appearance bespeaks of a future destined for greatness. Going from sport to war, Okonkwo’s strength brings him to the forefront of the struggle, making him a hero among his clan, gaining for him the titles and respect so important to the Igbo life. Yet his very strengths will lead eventually to his downfall. His inability to control that strength is exhibited in his monumental rages and tyrannical abuse of his wives and children. It is the physical beatings that will make him lose a good portion of the respect of his fellow tribe members.
Okonkwo, in his pride, finds himself sandwiched between two people who are nothing but failures in his eyes—his father and his son. His father, Unoka, was lazy and improvident, having no titles and little respect from his fellow clansmen. A great part of Okonkwo’s life is spent trying to distance himself from the failures of his father, often through the outright bragging that he engages in concerning his own achievements.
His father’s negative traits are mirrored in Nwoye, Okonkwo’s oldest son. It is for this reason that Okonkwo feels such a desire to belittle and beat the laziness out of his son. Nwoye’s failures are a sad reflection on his father, giving the appearance of weakness in his ability to pass on his virtues to the next generation. Through Unoka’s failures as a father and Okonkwo’s efforts not to repeat them, Okonkwo instead becomes a failure as a father himself. Okonkwo thus develops a habit of bringing about the very thing he is endeavoring to avoid.
Similarly, Okonkwo’s eventual fall is the ultimate failure. Taking upon himself the sole responsibility to maintain the Igbo traditions, Okonkwo instead places himself far beyond the ability to do so when he commits suicide. This complete rejection of the tradition against self-murder shows that Okonkwo’s ultimate concern is not tradition but his own pride in his achievements.