Okonkwo, the main character in China Achebe s novel Things Fall Apart, was a tragic figure. Though he strove to be a good, moral man, his fears and inflexible nature caused him to step out of line with his culture s definition of a good man. Every time he did so, he was in some way chastised or prodded back in the right direction, until finally he went too far and ultimately broke from his society entirely. Okonkwo was not a cruel man.
But his whole life was dominated by fear, the fear of failure and of weakness. His father, Unoka, was a poor, lazy, gentle soul who was regarded by the clan to be a failure. He died without title and massively in debt. Unoka was never happy when it came to wars. He was in fact a coward and could not bear the sight of blood. This did not sit well with Okonkwo.
Even as a little boy he had resented his father s failure and weakness When Okonkwo matured, this resentment blossomed and caused Okonkwo to be ruled by one passion – to hate everything that his father Unoka had loved. So Okonkwo hated gentleness and idleness, which he saw as weakness and laziness, and cowardliness and peace, which he drove out by becoming a harsh and domineering man prone to violence and war. [I]need he was possessed by the fear of his father’s contemptible life and shameful death.” Okonkwo was a supremely rigidly minded man, and once he set his mind to something, allowed no deviation from that course. For example, “Okonkwo never showed any emotion openly, unless it be the emotion of anger. To show affection was a sign of weakness; the only thing worth demonstrating was strength. Even to his loved ones, he showed only this face, not allowing any sign of what he considered weakness to show through.
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He treated his family harshly, and had little patience for less successful men. Okonkwo was not a man of thought but action. Because he was not a man of thought, his actions were always the same. A one point, a clan member contradicted him at a kindred meeting which they held to discuss the next ancestral feast. Without looking at the man Okonkwo had said: This meeting is for men. The man who had contradicted him had no titles.
That was why he had called him a woman. Okonkwo knew how to kill a man’s spirit. Everybody at the kindred meeting took sides with Osu go when Okonkwo called him a woman.” This happened early in the book, setting up the pattern for the clan s reaction to Okonkwo when moves away from his societies ideal of a good man. Here, Okonkwo s offense is minor he is ungracious when contradicted in public by a lesser man and the clan s reaction is equally minor. Unfortunately, Okonkwo s nature does not allow him to change. He is the way he his, and will not admit that he is wrong.
The next major incident occurs during the Week of Peace, a sacred time for the clan. One of his wives leaves to visit a friend, failing to cook a meal and feed her children, “And when she returned he beat her heavily. In his anger he had forgotten that it was the Week of Peace. His first two wives ran out in great alarm pleading with him that it was the sacred week. But Okonkwo was not the man to stop beating somebody half-way through, not even for fear of a goddess.” He pays the fine for his offense against the earth-goddess, but shows only his harsh, warrior face. “Inwardly, he was repentant.
But he was not the man to go about telling his neighbors that he was in error. And so people said he had no respect for the gods of the clan. Okonkwo again stepped outside the moral bounds of his culture, and again was chastised, this time with a fine and social stigma. Again, his harsh nature and inability to admit any sign of weakness caused trouble for Okonkwo. During the preparations for the celebration for the new year, Okonkwo grew restless and angry.
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He beat his wife for an imagined offense, then got his gun, … ran out again and aimed at her… He pressed the trigger and there was a loud report accompanied by the wail of his wives and children. However, early that morning as he offered a sacrifice of new yam and palm-oil to his ancestors he asked them to protect him, his children and their mothers in the new year. Okonkwo was still observing the traditions of the clan, but there was a growing disparity apparent between his actions and the beliefs and traditions of the clan. During a trial at which he presides as one of the judging spirits, another man is told It is not bravery when a man fights with a woman.
Okonkwo s fear and inflexibility drove him to actions that fulfilled his fear, creating a cycle that would eventually destroy him. Eventually, the time comes for Ikemefuna to be executed. Okonkwo had become fond of Ikemefuna, viewing him almost as a son. There was no doubt that he liked the boy.” For this reason, he is warned not to participate by his friend, Ogbuefi, who says I want you to have nothing to do with it. He calls you father. But Okonkwo is afraid of being seen as too weak to do the job, and goes out anyway: Okonkwo looked away.
He heard the blow. The pot fell and broke in the sand. He heard Ikemefuna cry, My father, they have killed me! as he ran towards him. Dazed and with fear, Okonkwo drew his machete and cut him down. He was afraid of being thought weak. Dazed and with fear, he murders one whom he had considered like a son.
Afterwards he is unable to sleep for days. At a funeral celebration, the men were shooting their guns into the air, and Okonkwo s gun exploded, triggering another reaction from the tribe. A shard of the gun pierced the heart of the son of the dead man, killing him. Violent deaths were frequent, but nothing like this had ever happened. The only course open to Ok was to flee from the clan. It was a crime against the earth goddess to kill a clansman, and a man who committed it must flee from the land.
Because the crime was inadvertent, Okonkwo would be allowed to return in seven years. At this point Okonkwo s chi or personal spirit is intervening to warn him of his growing distance from the clan s moral center, but again, Okonkwo is unable to respond properly. Nearing the end of the story, Okonkwo had returned and regained some of his prominence in the clan. By this time, the intrusion of the white man into the clan s life was growing more pronounced and oppressive.
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When the clan gathers together to discuss their option, the white man dispatches messengers to break up the meeting. He sprang to his feet as soon as he saw who it was. He confronted the head messenger, trembling with hate, unable to utter a word… In a flash Okonkwo drew his machete… and the man’s head lay beside his uniformed body.
The waiting black cloth jumped into tumultuous life and the meeting was stopped. Okonkwo stood looking at the dead man. He knew that Umuofia would not go to war. He knew because they had let the other messengers escape. They had broken into tumult instead of action.
He discerned fright in that tumult. He heard voices asking: Why did he do it He wiped his machete on the sand and went away. Once again, Okonkwo s actions without thought put him outside the moral confines of the clan. This time, however, the entire clan is there, and recoils from him. At last, Okonkwo realizes that he is no longer in sync with the rest of the clan. His actions have caused him to remove himself emotionally and physically from the clan, and now he sees the widening gulf between them.
When the white man comes looking for Okonkwo to bring him to trial, he is nowhere to be found. Finally, they are taken to the spot where Okonkwo has hanged himself, taking his own life. When the white man asks why he was not taken down, the clan replies, It is against our custom it is an abomination for a man to take his own life. It is an offence against the Earth, and a man who commits it will not be buried by his clansmen. Okonkwo has finally gone too far, and become totally removed from the clan, from both viewpoints.
He is dead, and the clan has rejected him. Okonkwo s fears have finally realized themselves, and he dies in shame and a failure. Okonkwo dies, completely cut off from his clan because of his actions. It did not need to be so.
Every time he veered from the moral centers of his clan, the society warned him in some way, somehow tried to guide him back. Okonkwo s flaws, his inability to conquer his fear, and his inability to bend, to admit to any weakness, finally caused him to stand alone. Okonkwo could not stand that he had become exactly what he feared, a failure. It is more difficult and more bitter when a man fails alone.
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In the end, he did the only thing he could be expected to do, and stamped out his own failure permanently.