Onkonkwo: The Personification of Umuofia’s Ideals

In Chinua Achebe’s novel, Things Fall Apart, the main character Oknonkwo is strong, powerful, well-respected, and as some critics have noted, almost a legend even within the book. Oknonkwo’s personality literally embodies his town’s, Umuofia’s, ideals to the point that he is a personified version of Umuofia and the entirety of its ideology.

Achebe’s novel begins with the vivid description of Okonkwo, and his massive feat in “throwing the cat” (Achebe 3). Indeed, his physical strength, and the imagery of this man flexing every muscle in his body to its “breaking point” is powerful, yet it is the first line of the entire novel, “Okonkwo was well known throughout the nine villages” (Achebe 3) which is most telling as it mimics Umuofia’s own description later in the novel. Umuofia is described as being “fear by all its neighbors” (Achebe 9), meaning that if it is feared it is also known by all of its neighbors. The two descriptions seem to coincide, and though not the most convincing, it begins to set up a theme of character and setting essentially being one in the same.
One such example of this, again dealing with the descriptions within the first few pages of the novel, has to do with the anger Oknonkwo exhibits, and the fear which Umuofia incites. Indeed, Achebe does give Oknonkwo more depth than being an emotionally void, hypermasculine, angry man, but as he is originally described, as a man who “never showed any emotion openly, unless it be the emotion of anger…the only thing worth demonstrating was strength” (Achebe 18). Though this makes him originally difficult to connect with, it sets a parallel with the aforementioned strength of Umuofia, and the fear it provokes in its neighbors. For the town teaches, that strength is dignified and the “only thing worth demonstrating”, and weakness is worth both scorn and ultimate exile.

Umuofia’s idealization of strength, and thus Oknonkwo’s own embodiment of this ideology, can be seen in Oknonkwo’s former relationship with, and the later thoughts regarding his father, Unoka. Unoka is, from the beginning, slandered as a lazy, greedy, emotional man who ultimately died from his own weaknesses. It is even revealed that “it was the fear of himself, lest he should be found to resemble his father” (Achebe 10), and later that Oknonkwo was “possessed by the fear of his father’s contemptible life and shameful death” (Achebe 13). This relationship is a driving factor in giving an explanation to the “hard” persona which Oknonkwo exhibits so early on. However, if Oknonkwo is indeed a personified version of Umuofia, then this hatred simply stems from the defamed reputation the father had. As Oknonkwo so wholeheartedly embodies all Umuofia’s principals, his father being an overwhelmingly “weak” man, is both emasculating and embarrassing to be associated with. The simple fact that Unoka died physically in a shameful way, and spoke of love before doing so goes to exhibit his separation from Umuofia and its ideals. Though the revelation of his fear so early in the novel is seemingly a weak, Oknonkwo’s tireless, even “possessed” efforts to differentiate himself from his father is demonstrative of the indefatigable ideology of Umuofia.

Oknonkwo character, while both hypermasculine and stoic in his hard-working efforts to maintain power and be well-respected, even feared, within Umuofia is not just an embodiment of the town’s ideals but is an outward characterization of these ideals. Thus, Oknonkwo and Umuofia are inseparable in that Oknonkwo is the personification of Umuofia.

B1. Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. W. W. Norton & Company Inc., 2009.

2 thoughts on “Onkonkwo: The Personification of Umuofia’s Ideals

  1. As you noted, Okonkwo’s physical prowess, work ethic, and anger coincide with Umuofia’s status as a powerful village, capable of triumph in war, magic, wealth, and striking fear in their enemies. Okonkwo’s fierce dedication to tradition and hypermasculinity certainly drive him to go to extreme lengths, such as when he scolds Nwoye and Ikemefuna for not being able to properly harvest yams, a symbol of masculinity; by failing this, the two boys are not “manly” enough. However, while Okonkwo does typically personify Umuofia’s culture, there are moments when Okonkwo’s emotions and overzealousness drive him to break away from societal norms such as when he beats his second wife during the Week of Peace and when he becomes directly involved in Ikemefuna’s death. Such actions raise the question of whether Okonkwo is truly a personification of Umuofia.

  2. The first time reading this novel I would have to agree with your analysis of Okonkwo. However, after studying Things Fall Apart for the third time I think the connection you make between Okonkwo and Umuofia because less valid. On the surface level, I think the connection you make between Okonkwo and Umuofia is interesting and intriguing. I can understand how you view Okonkwo as a character who embodies the many values and ideologies of Umuofia. Yet, the further along novel progresses, the more the reader sees Okonkwo as an outcast and a character fearful of change. I do not believe Okonkwo represents Umuofia in this way. I see it more that Okonkwo is the character that is unable to break from traditional values and keep up with the growing and changing customs of his control. While at the beginning of the novel Okonkwo demonstrates characteristics that reflect Umuofia, I do not believe this idea sustains throughout the entirety of the novel. BC#1

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