Each time after reading Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart the complexities and depths within the novel become more apparent. This is a text that uses storytelling to educate readers about the Umuofia tribe of the Ibo village found in Nigeria. Achebe creates a story that ignites a conversation about his characters, and more largely, the results of western influence on African societies. The first part of the novel primarily focuses on developing Okonkwo as a character and establishing his space within Umuofia. Okonkwo is a character who initially appears to be a man of success, yet throughout the novel, Achebe continuously undresses Okonkwo in order to reveal his core. It is Okonkwo’s layers that give the text its depth and spark discussions of societal expectations found within the Ibo village. Achebe uses Okonkwo’s character to raise awareness of stress inflicted on men to uphold a manly status. Specifically, Okonkwo is depicted as a tragic hero in order to create a character the reader can have compassion for while simultaneously drawing on flaws of societal expectations.
To Okonkwo, being a man means being everything opposite of his father. The father/son relationship within Things Fall Apart builds Okonkwo’s tragedy and highlights his inability to change. The reader can immediately find compassion for Okonkwo within the first few chapters of the book by the way Achebe describes Okonkwo’s relationship with his father, Unoka. The reader knows Okonkwo is embarrassed by his deceased father, but he will do anything in his power to continue to remind his tribe that he is nothing like Unoka. Specifically, the relationship between Okonkwo and his son, Nwoye, illustrates Okonkwo’s desire to overcome his father’s past and prove his manliness. Nwoye is much quieter and does not satisfy his father with his work. It is not until Ikemefuna comes into the story that Nwoye and Okonkwo are able to mend their relationship.
Ikemefuna is another character that uses father/son relationship to emphasize Okonkwo’s overwhelming desire to prove he is a man and thus contributes to the tragic hero he becomes. Ikemefuna was sent to live with Okonkwo and he soon becomes one of family. He acts as an older brother to Nwoye and together they work to please Okonkwo. A new fire has been placed in Nwoye and Okonkwo is pleased, so pleased he invites the young boys to listen to “stories of violence and bloodshed” (Achebe 33). At this point in the text, it is clear that Okonkwo places a strong value on being a man and the reader can now see these values being passed on to Nwoye and Ikemefuna. Nwoye quickly learned that “it was right to be masculine and to be violent” (Achebe 33). So when his father is asked to kill Ikemefuna, Nwoye can only imagine his father’s role in the execution.
Okonkwo was given advice regarding the tragedy of Ikemefuna, yet he neglects it. Okonkwo is unable to change his loyalty to being a man and refuses to show any emotional attachment to Ikemefuna. That is the true tragedy. Okonkwo is so stubborn he walks his new son his deathbed. His inability to change causes further stress on Okonkwo’s relationship with Nwoye who now feels betrayed and hurt. When Okonkwo chooses to disregard the advice he receives of Ikemefuna’s death he not only loses one son but two. The divide between Okonkwo and Nwoye becomes larger as his son is able to adapt and challenge societal values of “violence” (Achebe 33). Okonkwo remains the same and finds himself exiled due to a violent act. A tragedy of a father losing his son is one that draws on the flaws of Okonkwo’s manliness and his powerlessness to change.
Achebe, Chinua. “The Text of Things Fall Apart.” Things Fall Apart: Authoritative Text, Contexts and Criticism, edited by Francis Abiola Irele, W.W. Norton & Company Inc, 2009, pp. 3-117.