The novel, Things Fall Apart, written by Chinua Achebe is a very clear example of a man who has an intense fear of being like his father: lazy, disrespected, and unsuccessful. Okonkwo, the main character, lives his whole life making sure that he does not turn into the kind of man that his father was all while he tries to not disappoint his Nigerian Ibo tribe and the oracle. Due to this, Okonkwo ultimately struggles when a group of white missionaries travel to their tribe and inform them that the oracle is not real; therefore, the lives they had been living so far were a lie; which ultimately leads to Okonkwo’s downfall. Chinua Achebe explores the ideas of tragedy by focusing on events and relationships that turn the protagonist, Okonkwo, into a tragic hero.
Okonkwo is heavily pressured into killing Ikemefuna to prove to himself and his tribe that he is not a weak man. Okonkwo explains that his fear of being like his father is what sets him aside from all the others: “Whenever the thought of his father’s weakness and failure troubled him he expelled it by thinking about his own strength and success. And so he did now. His mind went to his latest show of manliness” (Achebe 66). Okonkwo knew that even though he has grown close with Ikemefuna that if he did not kill him it would show a sign of weakness among the tribe. According to this, he sets aside the relationship of his peers to focus on himself and what would get him further away from ending up like his father; be brave and kill Ikemefuna. He is highly against looking weak in front of his Ibo people and afraid that his people will relate Okonkwo to his father in a negative manner. Okonkwo believes that resembling his father is, in essence, a failure.
Okonkwo’s personality and perspective change when he finds out that his son, Nwoye, has converted to Christianity. When the missionaries come, Nwoye is very attracted to them and their stories. Nwoye does not forgive Okonkwo for the murder of Ikemefuna and thinks it would be a good idea to betray his father by converting to Christianity, despite his interest in the religion. After Nwoye is lured into the Christian religion and abandons his culture and family, Okonkwo is ashamed and states, "You have all see the great abomination of your brother. Now he is no longer my son or your brother. I will only have a son who is a man, who will hold his head up among my people" (172). Nwoye's father disowns him only because he chooses a path untraditional to his culture. He was so angered and disappointed in his son that, “…A sudden fury rose within him and he felt a desire to take up his machete, go to the church and wipe out the entire village and miscreant gang" (Achebe 152). Okonkwo is not prone to change and relies heavily on tradition and past ways of approaching things. Okonkwo will not ever learn to accept Christianity. Okonkwo is not a man of change, but a man of ancestry and strength. He will never accept this new religion, because he never accepted his father. Yes, Okonkwo despises the religion not so much because Nwoye left the clan, but because of the influences it evokes on Nwoye. Nwoye has cursed Okonkwo by leaving him, and Nwoye left him because he did not live up to Okonkwo’s expectations.
Okonkwo’s exile from an accidental killing contributes to the collapse of this tragic hero. A killing in the Ibo culture is a disgrace to their people; more so, the murderer is exiled for life. However, because this killing is an accident Okonkwo is exiled for only seven years. After Okonkwo accidentally committed a crime, “a large crowd of men from Ezeudu’s quarter stormed Okonkwo’s compound, dressed in garbs of war. They set fire to his houses, demolished his red walls, killed his animals and destroyed his barn. It was the justice of the earth goddess, and they were merely her messengers. They had no hatred in their hearts against Okonkwo. His greatest friend, Obierika, was among them. They were merely cleansing the land which Okonkwo had polluted with the blood of a clansman” (Achebe 124,125). When all that Okonkwo had was merely destroyed he envisions himself becoming more and more like his father. He felt as if he was already an example of his father’s failure and had to in all actuality start over. All of the things that he had worked so hard to gain, on the contrary to his father, were gone. Okonkwo doubts himself when he realizes, “seven years was a long time to be away from one’s clan. A man’s place was not always there, waiting for him” (Achebe 172). Okonkwo realizes that he has probably lost his high position in his fatherland. Just like Unoka, he had lost his name in the clan. He was not longer of status which lures him into what is becoming as disgrace to him and to his clan; being like his father.
The fear of change is what ultimately leads to Okonkwo’s suicide and his becoming of a tragic hero. Okonkwo commits suicide because he loses his place as a man in his culture, a place now filled by the Church and Christian values. He commits murder out of frustration in defending his manhood, but his clansmen refuse to retaliate against the white man and defend his act of murder. Obierika explains the impacts of the white missionaries on their clan: “The white man is very clever. He came quietly and peaceably with his religion. We were amused at his foolishness and allowed him to stay. Now he has won our brothers, and our clan can no longer act like one. He has a put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart” (Achebe 176). Okonkwo’s clan is the only thing that he lives for and is his basis for acting manly and brave, so that in return he will not be a disappointment to himself by becoming more like his father. However his clan, due to the impact of the white men, have fallen apart and Okonkwo believes that he has no longer has any significance in life.
Chinua Achebe explains events and relationships in Okonkwo’s life that contribute to his downfall as a tragic hero. A tragic hero always has a tragic flaw and fear is Okonkwo’s; fear that he is going to turn into the man that his father had become. Okonkwo does everything he can to prevent the unwanted transformation to happen; yet, the events that he cannot control take over and prevent him from being the man he wants to be. His determination to be the opposite person that of his father makes him take risks that eventually turn around to haunt him. If one lets something so important to them take over, it may distract them from what the reality consists of.
Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. New York: Anchor Books, 1994.