What defines rational and irrational thought and behavior varies across cultures and generations. It all depends on one’s perspective; however, a commonly accepted definition of irrational behavior seems to be behavior that lacks sound judgment. Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, “The Metamorphosis” by Franz Kafka, and “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, support this idea by showing us some illustrations of characters who think and act irrationally.
Okonkwo, the main character of Things Fall Apart, displays numerous signs of human irrationality. His biggest flaw is that he is terrified of looking weak, like his father. This irrational and excessive fear of being associated with his father causes him to think and do exactly the opposite of what his father did. He lets his fear control everything that he does. It is hard to understand how a person can grow and survive when he lives constantly under irrational fear. His efforts to be unlike his father cause him unhappiness and constant dissatisfaction.
Okonkwo’s irrationality drives him to violence and bravado, to oppose anything that he perceives as weak, soft, and unmanly, like his father. He displays no emotion, even toward his family. He is fond of his daughter, Enzinma, and Ikemefuna, a boy who is placed by the clan in his house, but he never shows any open affection toward them. Other characters in the story let their barriers down occasionally and let their emotions be seen freely, but not Okonkwo. Trying to hold back his emotion his entire life is an irrational behavior.
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One of the biggest displays of his irrationality is his murder of Ikemefuna, a boy to whom he grows attached, so that he would not be seen as weak. “Okonkwo drew his machete and cut him down. He was afraid of being thought weak.” (Davis, page 1448).
It is rather irrational for a human being to believe that his manliness will be jeopardized if he shows any emotion toward people about whom he cares. After all, Okonkwo appears to care for the boy and they have a relationship. The fear of being perceived as weak is understandable, yet murder seems rather excessive. He could choose to let others commit the crime. The need he has to be present at Ikemefuna’s execution is evidence of his irrationality.
Okonkwo’s treatment towards his son, Nwoye, is also disturbing. The fear of failure makes Okonkwo a perfectionist. He wants his son to be successful like him, but he feels that Nwoye is becoming like his weak and lazy grandfather. This is why Okonkwo continually beats him, hoping to correct the faults that he imagines. During the time at which the story occurred, this behavior was considered normal, but now we would view it as irrational. We now know that physical punishment brings only resentment towards the punisher. Moreover, it is not rational–albeit common–to expect perfection of any human being.
The clan’s beliefs are also irrational. They believe that it is normal to throw away newborn twins in the forest, because they are perceived as evil. However, now we see such behavior as wrong and even illegal. Knowledge plays an important role in today’s world. People don’t believe that siblings are evil just because they are twins.
Irrational behavior can also be seen in “The Metamorphosis” and “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings”. Kafka and Marquez respectively show us in their works that human being’s disdain toward something unusual or unknown is very dominant. The fact that disdain can be so overwhelming can be perceived as irrational. These authors also show similar reactions of their characters toward abnormal things. Their reaction is to hide or dispose of them.
In “The Metamorphosis”, the first irrational thing that the family does after Gregor, the main character, turns into a bug, is to accept his condition, without even having a second thought, and to conceal this fact from outsiders. They never try to find any help for him. Gregor and his parents, even long before his transformation, have a very unusual connection. Their relationship is basically based on mutual dependency: the parents need him to be their breadwinner, Gregor needs to feel useful. Their lack of affection and emotion toward each other is incomprehensible.
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Gregor’s reaction to his transformation is difficult to understand and can be seen as unreasonable as well. He basically adopts characteristics of a bug and disregards everything that he knows as a human. Even on the first day after his metamorphosis, his eating behaviors change from human to animal. It seems like he is controlled by his instincts, like an animal. His lack of thinking and wanting to turn back into a human is very irrational. Normal people want to get help when they think there is something wrong with them. Gregor seems to think that turning into a bug is a normal thing and he needs not to worry about it.
Gregor’s sister displays irrational behavior as well. She becomes overly possessive of Gregor and determined to be his sole care taker. She feels that she is the expert on what is best for him, just because she has been doing what she thinks he wants ever since the day he turned into a bug. This belief is illogical considering she never communicates with him after his transformation.
The father’s treatment of Gregor, ever since the first day of his transformation, has been illogical. He treats him as an enemy and not as his son. He views the bug as a weird creature that needs to be eliminated, even though the bug never threatens him and is after all still his son.
The irrationality of the human psyche and human behavior is also portrayed by Marquez in his work “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings”. The fact that no characters in the story, except maybe Father Gonzaga, ever doubt the notion that the neighbor woman, “who knows everything about life and death”, has about the old man being an angel is unreasonable. Just because the old man has enormous wings, people basically categorized him as an angel. Not one character in the story tries to find out what or who he really is.
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People who come to see this old man, treat him with no respect at all. This is an irrational thing, considering they think he is an angel. People see him as an attraction and regard him as a thing or an animal, not as an angel or even a human being. Even Father Gonzaga, a priest who comes to see him, behaves unreasonably. When Father Gonzaga feels that this old man doesn’t fit in his “angel” category, he puts him in a new category, “devil” category.
Pelayo and Elisenda, the people whose land the old man landed on, even exploit him to make money and to become rich. Their behavior is irrational because they don’t think about the consequences of their action. If they did believe the old man is an angel, they would not treat him as an animal. They would be too afraid to do that.
After another abnormal attraction, the girl who changed into a spider, comes and as no one comes to see the angel any more and as he grows weaker, Pelayo and Elisenda begin to see the old man as a nuisance in their life. They cannot wait to dispose of him. The lack of appreciation that the couple shows toward the angel is incomprehensible. Elisenda even seems relieved watching the old man finally fly away, “because then he was no longer an annoyance in her life”. (Davis, page 1869).
Literature, throughout the years, has been an insightful medium for writers to review and criticize human nature. Here is a perfect example of literature mirroring, in a creative as well as skeptical manner, patterns of behavior in world history. In all three stories, fear and disdain of the unknown are the main reason the characters think and behave illogically. This fear and disdain turn each of the characters into cruel human beings who are seen committing inhumane and irrational acts toward others.