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.
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.