In “Things Fall Apart,” Chinua Achebe introduces Okonkwo as a self-made member of the Umuofia society. He is respected because he follows all rules imposed by the society and strives to meet the expectations of a real mean. While Okonkwo is powerful, his actions are guided by the constant internal fear. One of the greatest fears which chase him is the terror of becoming similar to his father, Unoka, who was a lazy coward unable to support his family. Unoka was more interested in drinking rather than thinking about the survival of his family. Because Unoka did not work, there has never been enough money and the family starved. Unlike other men in society, Okonkwo did not have father’s support to start his own independent life. As Achebe writes, Okonkwo was “ruled by one passion – to hate everything that his father loved. One of those things was gentleness, and the other was idleness” (13). In these lines, it becomes clear that Okonkwo disrespected his father and strived to be a different person.
Interestingly, Okonkwo considered his father to be feminine or gentle. Such characteristics, in the view of Okonkwo, were in contradiction with the masculine images adapted and practiced by Umuofia society. Thus, the fear to repeat the destiny of his father meant failure to meet the expectations of the Umuofia community.
While Okonkwo manages to build his own life by the expectations of society, eventually he becomes the victims of the same community for which he strived to become a respected member.
Okonkwo achieves greatness in his society because of his warrior skills. Interestingly, the greatness and warrior skills are defined in Umuofia regarding some enemies killed. Okonkwo was “the first to bring home a human head” of the man who was not old yet (Achebe 10). Okonkwo murdered a young man and, therefore, weakened the powers of the enemy. It made him celebrated and respected. The second aspect of the social respect is physical strength.
Okonkwo is a skilled wrestler, the greatest one among several villages. At the age of eighteen, Okonkwo brought “honor to his village by throwing Amalinze the Cat,” the wrestler who has been unbeaten for seven years. Skills of a warrior and a wrestler helped Okonkwo to earn the respectful position in his society. He managed to become a person who fits the Umuofia’s definition of masculinity. Recalling his father who was gentle and idle, Okonkwo avoids his fear of getting the same treatment at his father received in society. The third factor that made Okonkwo great and eventually caused his fall is hard work. Okonkwo was a rich farmer. Unlike other men of his age in the village, he did not inherit a barn, but he worked hard and earned two barns full of yam. These three elements combined made him a perfect man in the eyes of the Umuofia society.
Nevertheless, none of the earned fortunes make Okonkwo happy. With the hope to prove his ability to fit the society, Okonkwo marries three women and has eight children. The desire to be the greatest and the fittest leads Okonkwo to the personal tragedy. Society is responsible for the suicide of Okonkwo at the end of the story.
The Umuofia society destroyed the human side of Okonkwo. His emotions are extreme while his internal fears motivate him to take actions which are destructive in essence. For example, Okonkwo assists in the murder of a boy he loved, he beats his wives and is emotionally isolated from his children.
He does not show his real emotions because he firmly believes that feelings are feminine and, therefore, may reveal his weakness. Taking into account that society respects only strong and hard-working members, emotions would destroy the desire of Okonkwo to become a respected member of Umuofia community. While sometimes the reader may feel that Okonkwo is not inhumane in his feelings, when the choice is limited between showing weakness and maintaining the self-created image, Okonkwo decides to go with the latter.
Thus, his life was guided by two principles:
- the fear of resembling his father and
- the desire to become the greatest member of his community.
Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that the ultimate failure of Okonkwo was the result of his stubbornness and cruelty. While society has a direct impact on the formation of personality and Okonkwo was not an exclusion from the rule, it should not be neglected that Okonkwo had a choice in every action he made. For example, he had a decision not to kill a boy he was attached to. Okonkwo had a choice not to beat and humiliate his wives just to show the society how strong he was. Okonkwo had an opportunity not to keep his children at a distance only to avoid being considered gentle and similar to his father. All of his actions were a matter of personal choice. The fact alone that Okonkwo made himself cruel reveals that his tragedy is not a result of social pressure. Okonkwo was entirely responsible for his own life, but he has decided to go wrong choices. He treated his wives as servants; they were necessary to raise his children and serve him food. Okonkwo is not better than his father. Despite his struggle to avoid the destiny of his father, Okonkwo becomes even worse. Unoka was indifferent and lazy while Okonkwo becomes a cruel dictator. Okonkwo’s exceptional pride does not leave any space for the compassion and other emotions. Even the act of suicide is a symbol of his pride as he is not willing to submit himself to a white man.
In conclusion, the society played an essential role in the life of Okonkwo. Since the early childhood, Okonkwo wants to become the best, the strongest and the most respected member of his community. The rules and norms created by Umuofia society turn Okonkwo into a monster. Eventually, he realizes that he does not know himself. He strives as much as he can to become a person who is diametrically different from his father, but he is surprised to learn that his desire manifests in the loss of personally. While the factor of personality could play its role in the tragedy of Okonkwo, the society itself killed him. He diligently tries to follow all laws of the community and never questions the morality or rightness of norms. Okonkwo’s pride and social rules come into conflict.
Throughout his life, Okonkwo does only what society expects of him. The final act of suicide is the only demonstration of his disagreement with the laws. Okonkwo is unable to be tolerant or compassionate; he shows no emotions and has no attachments. He is not willing to adapt or compromise. His pride for the earned respect of society motivates him to become more masculine.
When Okonkwo realizes that the society itself has betrayed the norms it valued, he does not see any other way out rather than to hang himself. His belief in the power of violence as the wisest principle for survival makes Okonkwo unable to deal with the shift in authority. Under the ruling of white men, Okonkwo would lose his status as the most influential man in society. Unable to accept his new role, he chooses death.
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