Chinua Achebe’s, Things Fall Apart could be considered a modern-day epic as a result of its world-renowned recognition; eight million papers in print in fifty different languages. Achebe’s main character in the novel: Okonkwo compares to the heroic figure of Odysseus, in Homer’s epic The Iliad. Okonkwo embodies the early ideals, characteristics, and traditions of his people and/or nation. And through Achebe’s dignified literary style, and use of language-Okonkwo represents the concept of self and society, and of the culture class during Africa’s colonization by western philosophy.
Okonkwo is introduced to the reader with a sense of urgency and importance in the opening sentence: “Okonkwo was well know throughout the nine villages and even beyond.” (Achebe 3) The reason was a result of him bringing honor to his village for being the fiercest wrestler when he was a younger man. Achebe’s physical description of Okonkwo is one of reverence, and could be used to describe many of the men in Umuofia. He is large, and his facial structure makes him seem to wear an angry expression at all times. The fact that his three wives could hear him breath while he slept, even though they lived in separate houses creates a strong image. Okonkwo personality is that of quick to anger and prone to expressing his anger through his fists. One important quality of Okonkwo is his desire to be successful-he has no patience for men like his father who had taken no title and died heavily in debt.
As a result of Okonkwo’s need for success comes his strength of working harder and longer than anyone else.In his village of Umuofia, men were recognized by there worth not by a patriarchal system. This is important for Okonkwo because he did not inherit a barn from his father, and was forced to borrow his first seed-yams from a rich man in the village. Yams were a sign of manliness in Umuofia, a man was considered great if he “could feed his family on yams from one harvest to another”. (Achebe 33) Yams required constant work and attention for an entire harvest, and Okonkwo reveled in the sowing of the yams. Achebe shows Okonkwo’s desire to work by explaining how he never became too overly enthusiastic over village feasts because it involved sitting for days, while Okonkwo would rather have been working. Working is a release for Okonkwo, and when there is no work to be done he would take is fury out on his family
It was common in Umuofia for men with titles to have multiple wives and not only allowed but encouraged that husbands demonstrate their superiority by beating their wives. Okonkwo had no problem with ruling his wives with a strong fist as demonstrated when Okonkwo committed a great evil by breaking the “Week of Peace” (Achebe 29) because he beat his first wife for not returning early enough to cook his afternoon meal. Okonkwo would frequently beat his wives out of anger, and to set and example to his sons on how to control their woman-folk. In Umuofia, “No matter how prosperous a man was, if he was unable to rule his women and his children (and especially his women) he was not really a man.” (Achebe 53) This is not because the men in Umuofia were unconcerned with a women’s well being, but because a man was expected to show his dominance over woman. Okonkwo has a genuine concern for his wives and the well being of his family.
Okonkwo’s daughter Ezinma became sick one night and it was Okonkwo who was roused in the middle of the night to come to his wife Ekwefi’s aid. Achebe notes how Okonkwo selected the best pot from his bundle to prepare the medicinal trees and shrubs in. When the priestess comes to take Ezinma to the caves one night, and Ekwefi follows, Okonkwo goes to the caves after he believes “a manly interval to pass”. (Achebe 112) Okonkwo shows his concern by going multiple times that evening, and “It was only on his fourth trip that he had found Ekwefi and by then he had become gravely worried.” (Achebe 112) Okonkwo wanted his Fist son Nwoye to be a tough young man who would inherit his father’s farm when he passes. Okonkwo has no time for men like his father and wants to instill in his sons, the importance of being respected and revered by the village. Okonkwo’s biggest fear is failure in him-self, which would make him like his father.
As a result of Okonkwo’s hard work, heavy hand, and fear of failure, he had become a wealthy farmer, with “two barns full of yams” (Achebe 8), and married three wives. He had even taken three titles and was a hero in two inter-tribal wars where he had killed five men in battle; he had taken the nickname “Roaring Flame”. (Achebe 153) And it was Okonkwo who represented Umuofia as an emissary of war. Okonkwo was not one to admit fault or show weakness to his neighbors. When the village of Umuofia ordered Okonkwo to give up Ikemefuna, his “adopted son”, because he must be killed-Okonkwo abides. He even ends up taking part in the killing process, “He heard Ikemefuna cry, “My father, they have killed me!” Okonkwo drew his machete and cut him down. He was afraid of being thought weak.” (Achebe 61) But it isn’t failure that forces Okonkwo to flee the clan, but an accidental explosion of his gun that pierces a sixteen-year-old boys heart.
Okonkwo’s desire was to become one of the lords of his clan. Now he was forced to start over in a land where he was exiled for a sentence of seven years. It was no fault of his, but Okonkwo had failed, and with this brought despair. While in exile, Okonkwo’s first son Nwoye had joined the white missionaries and as a result Okonkwo didn’t consider him his son anymore. This greatly worried Okonkwo not because of his son’s behavior, but of the idea that all of his son’s might abandon their ancestors. This scared Okonkwo and shows him humility because no matter how mad or how heavy the beating he could admonish, nothing would come of it. Achebe writes, “And immediately Okonkwo’s eyes were opened and he saw the whole matter clearly. Living fire begets cold, impotent ash.” (Achebe 153)
When Okonkwo returns to his village of Umuofia after his seven years in exile, he understands he has lost his place in the clan. But he is not prepared for the influx of the white man. The “albino” (Achebe 138) as Okonkwo called them, brought not only the church, but also their own form of government. Many in Umuofia joined the new church, and even a man with two titles had joined the Christians. Okonkwo was upset over what had happened to his clan, and was worried if they had lost their fight. Okonkwo realizes that the white men were threatening the foundation of his people, and they were crumbling. On the inside Okonkwo was grieving, not so much of a personal grief, but he mourned for his clan. Achebe writes, “he mourned for the warlike men of Umuofia, who had so unaccountably become soft like women.” (Achebe 183) When the District Commissioner captures Okonkwo and five other leaders of Umuofia by tricking them into a meeting, Okonkwo becomes full of hate. This bitterness in his heart results in him killing one of the messengers of the District Commissioner. Okonkwo is destroyed, his personal life and his clan had been taken over by the white man, and the other clansmen had lost their will to fight. Okonkwo’s only choice was suicide; he died in the same manner of his father-without a burial from his fellow clansman.
Okonkwo embodied a culture that has long been forgotten, and largely been fictionalized in early western literature. Achebe offers a more factual account of a once proud culture that has suffered as a result of the injustices of western colonization. Okonkwo represents the proud history of Africa, and how contrary to Western prejudices his people had something to offer the world. Okonkwo wasn’t without his flaws, but more importantly he was a proud man who was devoted to his family and even more so to the clan. But when confronted with a new culture that threatens the things that hold Okonkwo’s culture together, he becomes demoralized. He realizes that his clan was falling apart as a result of the white men, and that he would rather take his own self rather than live in this new society.
Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. New York: Doubleda