As individuals, we are all the products of the circumstances we were raised in. For Okonkwo, the protagonist of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1958), these circumstances are that of his clan in Umuofia, and his childhood home, headed by Unoka – who is notably irresponsible and lazy. However, attributing all of Okonkwo’s behaviors and actions to the environment he was raised in, overlooks the nuances of his decisions and diminishes his agency. In “Narrative Techniques of Things Fall Apart,” Solomon O. Iyasere argues that Okonkwo is not simply the product or embodiment of his clan’s values, but that both the clan and Okonkwo possess more intricacies than such a reading would allow the reader to have (371). Instead readers must understand the clan as both a rigid structure that is attempting to maintain “serenity, harmony, and communal activities,” and a group of individuals who can hold “personal doubts and fears” about the traditions they uphold (Iyasere 372-374).
As a result of this desire to maintain peace, Iyasere argues that the clan must find balance between masculine and feminine attributes (Iyasere, 380). He presents the death of Ozoemena, “a willed response to her husband’s death” after a long life together, as the “symbolic dramatization of the union between the masculine and feminine attributes essential in a great man” (380). Okonkwo is unable to reconcile the feminine and the masculine within himself – as a result of his father’s extemely feminine actions – and therefore creates a public self which is violent, immovable, and inherently masculine (Iyasere 380). His public self commits the murder of Ikemefuna, even though the boy calls him his father, while the private, feminine, self, runs to the aid of Ezinma (Iyasere 379-380). Later his drive for violent solutions is what leads Okonkwo to take his own life (Iyasere 385).
The inflexability that results from his insistence on masculine action – in this instance, the destruction of the Christian church – is evident in the moments before Okonkwo leads his clansmen to meet the District Commissioner. Directly beforehand, Okonkwo addresses his fellow leaders:
“Okonkwo warned the others to be fully armed. ‘An Umuofia man does not refuse a call,’ he said. ‘He may refuse to do what he is asked; he does not refuse to be asked. But the times are changed, and we must be fully prepared’,” (Achebe 109).
This speech demonstrates the rigid expectation he holds for his fellow men, by saying “an Umuofia man” must behave in a certain way. Locating the type of man and masculinity within the clan reinforces a sense of superiority that their actions must attempt to live up to.This is not a “white man” or a Mbainto man, but an “Umuofia man,” and that distinction means something. Using dialogue to present this moment, when the narrator could have described the interaction instead, draws attention to the fact that this is Okonkwo’s perspective. It is one man’s opinion. It also demonstrates Iyasere’s idea that Okonkwo will uphold rigid lines of masculinity in public. In this scene, Okonkwo is addressing five other men, in a matter related to the potential well-being of the clan. He is performing in the public sphere and must therefore project an image of strength.
While our protagonist is upholding rigid masculinity through his verbalized expectation of men, this moment complicates Iyasere’s reading of the text. Okonkwo presents the expectation that his fellow men respond to the request of the District Commissioner for a conversation, but through parallel structure declares that, “he may refuse to do what he is asked; he does not refuse to be asked” (Achebe 109). In his public self, Okonkwo is demonstrating flexibility. There is no expectation that a man must respond to the requests of another hostile man with violence, or a stern hand. He may respond how he chooses. While Okonkwo presents expectations for conduct, this final response is one that only the individual can make – just as he may follow his rigid definition of masculinity, while acknowledging that his decisions are his alone to make.
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.
Iyasere, Solomon O. “Narrative Techniques of Things Fall Apart.” Things Fall Apart: Authoritative Text, Contexts and Criticism, edited by Francis Abiola Irele, W.W. Norton & Company Inc, 2009, pp. 370-385.
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