Okonkwo’s Suicide as an Affirmative Act: Do Things Really Fall Apart?

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Okonkwo’s Suicide as an Affirmative Act: Do Things Really Fall Apart? Alan R Friesen
University of Regina
Okonkwo in Achebe’s Things Fall Apart has long been considered a tragic figure who is caught up in events that he cannot overcome, a victim of rather than an active participant in his own fate. Many critics have understood the novel to be “the tragic story of Okonkwo’s rise and fall among the Igbo people, concluding with that least ambiguous of all endings, the death of the hero” (Begam 397) without fully examining the ramifications of Okonkwo’s suicide upon both the colonial and Igbo cultures. These critics assume that the story follows the mode of tragedy (whether Aristotelian, modern or Igbo) and conclude that his suicide is the end product of his inability to control his own fate; however, this interpretation of Okonkwo’s suicide as the final failure of an ill-fated man is simply not consistent with the rest of the text. On the other hand, if we assume that Okonkwo’s suicide was an affirmative act, that is, a conscious decision to promote a positive ideal instead of an act of failure, then another interpretation presents itself. Rather than a tragic act, Okonkwo’s suicide can be seen as his last attempt to remind the Igbo people of their culture and values in the face of impending colonisation. The whole interpretation of Okonkwo’s suicide hinges on the concept of fate: despite his strength and heroic qualities, is he really in control of his life? Most of the critics who call Okonkwo a tragic figure do so because they believe that he cannot overcome his fate, or chi as it is referred to in Igbo culture. Chi “is a very enigmatic entity, and this accounts for the diversity of opinions as to its nature. But hardly any opinion contradicts the Igbo peoples belief that chi is an entirely personal deity, if it can be called a deity” (Ebeogu 74). Moreover [i]t is entirely responsible for the fortunes or misfortunes of the individual while on earth, and nothing happens to the individual except his chi consents. But, paradoxically, the Igbo folk think that the individual can somehow manipulate this personal enigmatic force called chi, and that one’s chi is always inclined to consent to one’s wishes. The relationship between the individual and his chi is thus manipulative. (74) So, then, what is Okonkwo’s chi? Is it, as some critics have claimed, “determined to lead him into disaster and shame,” necessitating Okonkwo’s suicide in order to “concede defeat to this enigmatic entity” (77), or is it determined to bring Okonkwo to a position in which he will sacrifice his own life in order to inspire resistance against the colonial oppressors? In other words, is Okonkwo in control of his chi, or does his chi control him? Let us look at several key events leading up to Okonkwo’s suicide to see if we can gain an insight into this event. From the novel’s opening, “Okonkwo was well known throughout the nine villages and even beyond” (Achebe 1), it is apparent that Okonkwo’s chi is very strong. With no pejoratives to indicate that this fame is the result of some infamous act, we can only assume that he is respected throughout these nine villages. Indeed, his first measurable achievement is the defeat of Amalinze the Cat in a wrestling match, described as “one of the fiercest since the founder of their town engaged a spirit of the wild for seven days and seven nights” (1). This description is important to the narrative for two reasons. First of all, it links Okonkwo with the progenitor of his village, implying a connexion reminiscent of that between Grecian kings and their gods. Not only is Okonkwo famous, but he is now associated with the supernatural. Second, Okonkwo defeats the undefeatable wrestler, which again reinforces this notion of divinity and sets up the claim that Obierika makes at the end of the novel, that Okonkwo is “one of the greatest men in Umuofia” (191). From the onset, therefore, we are meant to believe that there...
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