Gender Roles and Roaring Flames

Many people are guilty of experiencing the cliché late-night gaze into a fire, and Okonkwo is no exception. In Things Fall Apart, Okonkwo’s midnight reflection revolves around frustrations with gender, specifically in relation to his son Nwoye. In his piece entitled “Narrative Techniques in Things Fall Apart,” Solomon Iyasere defines Okonkwo’s rigid ideas about gender, explaining that “for Okonkwo, one is either a man or a woman; there can be no compromise, no composite” (Iyasere 380). Furthermore, Iyasere believes that Okonkwo never questions this dichotomy, sticking to his rigid code of gendered behavior without ever doubting his own actions: “Okonkwo becomes inflexible and his action allows no room for reflection” (Iyasere 380). However, I believe Okonkwo’s thought processes are slightly more nuanced. Although few and far between, several moments in the novel hint at Okonkwo’s self-doubt, specifically in regards to how he treats his children. Although Okonkwo frequently enforces strict beliefs based on assumptions about gender, moments of self-reflection (albeit brief) are illuminated in Achebe’s novel.

One such example occurs on the evening that Okonkwo hears of Nwoye’s involvement with the new Christian church. This passage uses metaphors and similes to subtly illustrate Okonkwo’s conflicting feelings surrounding his son’s perceived femininity. His first reaction to his son’s behavior is rage: “Now that he had time to think of it, his son’s crime stood out in its stark enormity. To abandon the gods of one’s father and go about with a lot of effeminate men clucking like old hens was the very depth of abomination” (Achebe 88). Clearly, this reaction is based on gender norms of the society, from the use of the word “effeminate” to the image of “clucking like old hens” (88). Old hens are not only female, but mindless. Okonkwo questions the intelligence of feminine men by comparing them to female animals. He goes on to imagine a posthumous embarrassment: a possible future where he and his forefathers receive no sacrifices because his sons are all “praying to the white man’s god” (88). Okonkwo therefore uses gender as an explanation for his son’s behavior. By failing to act like Okonkwo’s definition of a man, Nwoye has not only failed himself, but all of his ancestors. This passage would support Iyasere’s claim, if it were not for the short paragraph that follows.

Okonkwo’s initial rage is then contrasted with a small segment of self-reflection which also uses a metaphor. As he looks into the fire, Okonkwo reflects on his own nickname: “Roaring Flame” (88). In the last paragraph of the chapter, Okonkwo makes a realization: “He sighed heavily, and as if in sympathy the smouldering log also sighed. And immediately Okonkwo’s eyes were opened and he saw the whole matter clearly. Living fire begets cold, impotent ash. He sighed again, deeply” (Achebe 89). Okonkwo takes pride in his nickname. However, it is through the metaphor of his nickname that he is able to see how his own actions have possibly caused his son’s behavior. By admitting that “fire begets cold, impotent ash,” Okonkwo suddenly doubts his strict adherence to traditional masculinity. He calls his son impotent, but recognizes himself as the cause. This moment is brief, and the narrator does not delve deeply into Okonkwo’s thoughts after this discovery. This could signify Okonkwo’s mental change of subject. Although the moment is brief, in the symbol of a fire Okonkwo sees himself as a possible cause for his son’s “weaknesses” (Achebe 88). The passage signifies how Okonkwo cannot be defined as a one-sided character. Even though he values masculinity, the actions of those around him cause crises within him.

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Works Cited

Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. Things Fall Apart: A Norton Critical Edition, edited by Francis Abiole Irele, W.W. Norton & Co., 2009. 3-117.

“Camp Fire at Bramble Bield.” Alasdar, Flickr, 31 Oct. 2014.

Ikemefuna’s Storytelling and Power

Apparent from the very first page, Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is a novel which finds its unique voice by interweaving influences of Western literature and the vibrancy found in traditional African oral folktales.  Scattered throughout the First Part of the novel’s chapters, we come across various vignettes relaying past stories about the characters we encounter, in attempts for Achebe to guide the reader into constructing fully formed humans out of a people who have almost never been afforded dimension and humanity within the “colonial canon” (XVII) as Irele describes it.  While afforded with this dimension, the character of Ikemefuna finds his humanity contested by his circumstances. Taken from his family and village in an act of retribution for the killing of a woman from Okonkwo’s village, Ikemefuna’s displacement is the result of an event that is removed from his control. He enters Okonkwo’s life as a consequence of Okonkwo’s responsibility and the mistakes of his own father, and while this situation leaves him at a great disadvantage against the world, the conclusion of Chapter 5 sees how Ikemefuna uses the act of telling folktales to reestablish his sense of significance and identity amongst Okonkwo’s family.

As he discusses the intricacies of the planting and harvest seasons and how Umuofian society functions in the brief respite in between, Achebe touches on how “children sat around their mother’s cooking fire telling stories” (22).  This imagery is framed by the greater presence of heavy rainfall and thunder, but transitions to the abrupt image of Okonkwo’s family, and Ikemefuna’s own perception of his role in it, “Ikemefuna had begun to feel like a member of Okonkwo’s family,” Achebe narrates.  While technically a forced inhabitant of Okonkwo’s home, Ikemefuna slowly adjusts himself to his new reality through his attachment to Nwoye, Okonkwo’s eldest son. This attachment appears to be primarily achieved through Ikemefuna’s storytelling ability,

“[he] had an endless stock of folk tales. Even those which Nwoye knew already were told with a new freshness and the local flavour of a different clan. Nwoye remembered this period very vividly till the end of his life. He even remembered how he had laughed when Ikemefuna told him that the proper name for a corn cob with only a few scattered grains was eze-agadi-nwayi, or the teeth of an old woman. Nwoye’s mind had gone immediately to Nwayieke, who lived near the udala tree.” (22)

An Udala Tree

Like the memory of the old woman living near the udala tree that finds itself so vividly brought to the front of Nwoye’s consciousness through Ikemefuna’s stories, the memory of Ikemefuna is preserved though the stories he told and the humanity he injected into their telling.  While Ikemefuna can be read as a character used simply as a narrative tool to emphasize Okonkwo’s most destructive qualities, I argue that Achebe assigned Ikemefuna the role of a storyteller to highlight his individuality and purpose outside of Okonkwo’s story, while serving as a layered metaphor for the significance of Achebe’s own storytelling.  Confined by the influence and force of those who uprooted him from his culture and family, Ikemefuna forges strength through the ability to tell stories using a voice and perspective that recalls his origins. And like Ikemefuna’s telling of folktales that are retold in his ‘local flavour’, Achebe accomplishes a similar feat of using storytelling to signal multi-dimensional humanity and identity despite a contrasting narrative imposed on him by his oppressors.

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Sources:

Achebe, Chinua. “Things Fall Apart” Things Fall Apart: Authoritative Text, Contexts, and Criticism, edited by Francis Abiola Irele, W.W Norton & Company, 2009, p. 22

Irele, Francis A. “Introduction” Things Fall Apart: Authoritative Text, Contexts, and Criticism, edited by Francis Abiola Irele, W.W Norton & Company, 2009, p. XVII