A tragic hero is someone of superior qualities and status, who suffers a reversal of fortune due to major character flaws. In the novel, Things Fall Apart, Achebe portrays his own characterization of a tragic hero through Okonkwo, the main character. Like typical tragic heroes in other literature, he suffers a terrible death in the end. Despite his honorable and respectable social status, Okonkwo’s tragic flaws, fear of failure and anger, bring about his own destruction.
Okonkwo is one of the most powerful men in the Igbo tribe: “Okonkwo was well known throughout the nine villages and even beyond…he had brought honour to his village by throwing the Cat” (3). This suggests that in his society, power is attained by achieving greatness and fame, either through fighting or wrestling. Okonkwo also works and tends to his crops in a zealous fashion, which drives everyone around him to be as diligent as him. Because of this, he earns his place as one of Umuofia’s most respectable leaders. Though he isn’t always please with his children and wives, they bring him a sense of pride and respect since having a large family means that the head of the family is able to support all of them. Okonkwo fails to free himself from his major character flaws, which ultimately brings about his tragic demise.
Okonkwo’s first prominent flaw is his fear of failure, which is greatly influenced by his father, Unoka, a very lazy and carefree man. He had a reputation of being “poor and his wife and children had barely enough to eat…he was a loafer” (4). Ashamed of his incapable father, Okonkwo felt that anything that resembled Unoka or anything that his father enjoyed was weak and unnecessary. Because of his fear to be seen as weak, Okonkwo even strikes down a child that calls him father: “…Okonkwo drew his matchet and cut [Ikemefuna] down. He was afraid of being thought weak” (43). Killing the child demonstrates Okonkwo’s fear of weakness and that to him, reputation is more important than the life of the child. This flaw eventually brings about his downfall at the end when he continues to fight stubbornly against the white Christians since he believes giving up shows weakness.
Okonkwo’s uncontrollable anger is another flaw that prevents him from true greatness and ultimately destroys his life. To discipline Nwoye, he becomes very rough on his son. For example, when Nwoye overhears that Ikemefuna was to be “taken home the next day, [Nwoye] burst into hears, whereupon his father beat him heavily” (40). Okonkwo’s inability to control his infuriation eventually drives his son away to join the “enemies” and even reject his own family. This particular attitude causes much hatred in Okonkwo towards the missionaries to the point of him murdering one: “Okonkwo’s matchet descended twice and the man’s head lay beside his uniformed body” (144). His abhorrence and rage in this situation led him to his downfall. Although his emotion can be justified, it is clear that he cannot control his sudden rage and his quick-tempered actions.
Okonkwo’s suicide at the end of the novel concludes the life of a tragic hero. His fear of failure and sudden anger lead him to such actions that cannot be ameliorated and reversed. Despite his several honourable characteristics and his high status in the Igbo society, he fails to correct his tragic flaws and eventually suffers a terrible downfall.
Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. : Heinemann International Literature & Textbooks, 1993.
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Change is Bad: Okonkwo’s Resistance to Change in Things Fall Apart
The character of Okonkwo in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart was driven by fear, a fear of change and losing his self-worth. He needed the village of Umuofia, his home, to remain untouched by time and progress because its system and structure were the measures by which he assigned worth and meaning in his own life. Okonkwo required this external order because of his childhood and a strained relationship with his father, which was also the root of his fears and subsequent drive for success. When the structure of Umuofia changed, as happens in society, Okonkwo was unable to adapt his methods of self-evaluation and ways of functioning in the world; the life he was determined to live could not survive a new environment and collapsed around him.
From an early age, Okonkwo was ashamed of his father, Unoka, who was unable even to feed his family. The unpredictability of receiving enough food at a young age was enough to inspire fear and embarrassment in Okonkwo who associated this embarrassment with his father and was given further justification for these feelings when he went out into Umuofia, discovering that the other villagers held similar opinions of Unoka. When he was old enough, Okonkwo began farming his own yams because “he had to support his mother and two sisters […] And supporting his mother also meant supporting his father” (25). Okonkwo’s self-reliance was admired, valued in the community where “age was respected […] but achievement was revered” (12); this admiration gave him feelings of security, and the respect of his peers pushed him towards greater self-respect, distancing him from his father. The security and respect became related in his mind as he viewed his acceptance in the community as his life’s goal and Okonkwo stretched it to the point of hyperbole in an effort to impress the villagers with the example of manhood he embodied. If he was accepted in the community, he was safe, respected, and successful, unlike his father, and his life had meaning.
Okonkwo continually rejected the ways of his father, who was deeply indebted to other members of Umuofia, holding no titles, to the point where Okonkwo’s “whole life was dominated by fear, the fear of failure and of weakness” (16). He transferred his fears into the context of Umuofia and the traits that society valued, but what was really the driving force in his decisions “was the fear of himself, lest he should be found to resemble his father” (17). The values of Umuofia resembled the polar opposite of what Unoka was and Okonkwo twisted his motivations around in his mind and presented them to himself and the community as derived from Umuofia’s traditions. From this delusion, Okonkwo established his ultimate goal of becoming a revered member of the village, possessing many titles, and achieving anything necessary displaying his prominence in the community.
The disparity between Okonkwo’s true motivations and his warped motivations lead Okonkwo to behave in ways which shocked other members of Umuofia with his apparent disregard for others, but which made sense to him as he saw weakness and Unoka in alternatives. When Ezeudu, a respected elder in Umuofia, informed Okonkwo that the village Oracle called for the killing of Okonkwo’s adopted son Ikemefuna, he asked Okonkwo not to take part. However, Okonkwo not only accompanied them, but he struck the killing blow as Ikemefuna called out for his protection. When Okonkwo is later questioned by his friend, Obierika, about not participating, Okonkwo became defensive saying, “‘You sound as if you question the authority and decision of the Oracle, who said he should die’” (64). Okonkwo associated participating in carrying out the village’s order with the strength valued by the community, disregarding his own relationship with the boy. Umuofia’s customs and traditions, as he saw them, outweighed his personal feelings in the situation. Okonkwo was mistaken in what the values were in this situation as they failed to comply with his real desire to partake in killing Ikemefuna, doing what his father would not have done. When he beat his wife during the Week of Peace, he did so because he didn’t wish to appear permissive the way Unoka was, but when the village chastised him, he repented accordingly, reconciling and accepting the blame, though he only regretted his actions as far as they cost him some of his standing in the community.
The Ibo ways faded through the novel, arriving at a head in Part Two, bringing the downfall of Okonkwo. There are signs in the novel of the changing mentality and questioning of Ibo ways, such as the abandonment of twins in the forest, by members of the community. During a discussion between Obierika and Okonkwo regarding the inconveniences of the ozo title, Obierika brought up that the title had lost value in other villages. Okonkwo became offended by Obierika’s joking saying “‘I think it is good that our clan holds the ozo title in high esteem […] In those other clans you speak of, ozo is so low that every beggar takes it’’’ (67). Okonkwo’s wording is key. Unoka was a beggar, was a valueless person to Okonkwo, and he held no titles in Umuofia society. If a beggar were allowed to take a title in Umuofia, it would disrupt the foundation on which Okonkwo had built and led his life; this response foreshadowed Okonkwo’s reaction to the larger events of the end of the novel.
When Okonkwo accidentally killed another member of Umuofia during a funeral ceremony, he made no argument about the seven years of banishment that was the standard punishment though it did pain him to leave. After Okonkwo and his family leave, Obierika, who is described as “a man who thought about things” (117) mourned the loss of Okonkwo and questioned the reasoning behind the punishment for an inadvertent crime such as the one Okonkwo committed. This implies that Okonkwo does not think about the traditions he follows; in fact, he does not think about them so long as they continue to sustain his internalized hatred of everything his father stood for.
In living with his mother’s family in the Mbanta village, he initially felt that all was lost, and despaired when he was deprived of Umuofia and the opportunity to fulfill his “great passion – to become one of the lords of the clan” (121). He was distracted from his loss as all were distracted by the arrival and imposition of the white men and their ways. His initial reaction is similar to those around him and though he disapproves of them, they are ignored. When they welcome Okonkwo’s son, Nwoye, as a convert, it upsets him at first, “but on further thought he told himself that Nwoye was not worth fighting for” (142). He’d always seen so many aspects of Unoka in Nwoye and by dismissing him thus, Okonkwo continued his rebellion against his father. He managed to convince himself that when the time came for him to return to Umuofia, he would be back where he belonged, in a society that still knew what it believed in, and he would go back to working his way up in the village. He was convinced that Umuofia would be able to handle the nuisance of the white men swiftly and looked forward to being a part of it.
When Okonkwo returned to find that this was not the case, that instead of fighting, “it seemed as if the very soul of the tribe wept for a great evil that was coming – its own death” (172), he once again despaired and ended his life. The white men attracted enough members of Umuofia, specifically those who occupied the lowest positions and those who questioned the previous order, to severely weaken the village’s effectiveness and conviction. Those valued by the new institutions were those like Unoka. The new ways of Umuofia were too radically different from what Oknonkwo had established as his path in his youth. Though suicide went against the Umuofian traditions, it hadn’t really been about those traditions on the most basic level, and Okonkwo did one last thing that his father would never have had the strength of conviction to do. In a way, Okonkwo’s suicide really did conform to the ways of Umuofia; the true Umuofia that Okonkwo had been able to identify with and that he sought validation from had killed itself with its pliability towards the new ways.
Change, however, is inevitable, and those species and people unable to adapt to new circumstances are left behind. For Okonkwo to survive, he would have needed to reconstruct his beliefs but instead self-destructed; based on how passionate and determined Okonkwo was in his early life, his resistance to the change was complete and irreversible. It was his final downfall. As the Ibo ways changed, Okonkwo resisted such transformation and died with the old traditions.
Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. New York: Ballantine Books, 1991.
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