What Drives A Man
What makes a successful man? This, in itself, is a culture bound question because it can vary from culture to culture. However, in the perception of Okonkwo, the main character in Chinua Achebe's novel, Things Fall Apart, the measure of a man's success is based on two elements, material acquisition and growth, and physical prowess. This is ironic for Okonkwo since his people's typical idea of success seems to be constructed of a complex, strong spiritual culture, seemingly able to deal in traditional ways with any challenge in nature and human experience. (Ravenscroft 9) Although Okonkwo is undoubtedly an important member of Umuofian society, he is not a typical representative of that society. (Taiwo 115) It is this basic dichotomy between Okonkwo and his own culture that directly lead to the tragic fall of Okonkwo, and ultimate disgrace.
I feel that it is important to note at this time that Things Fall Apart is a tragedy, and Okonkwo is a tragic hero. For TFA to be a tragedy, it must follow the following pattern...
"A tragedy .. is the imitation of an action that is erious, has magnitude, and is complete in itself; in language with pleasurable accessories, each kind brought in separately in the various parts of the work; in a dramatic, not in a narrative form; with incidents arousing pity and fear, wherewith to accomplish it catharsis of such emotions"
Okonkwo is a tragic hero because he is superior to the regular people of the tribe, "Okonkwo was well known throughout the nine villages and even beyond" he's an extremist, ".whenever he was angry and could not get his words out quickly enough, he would use his fists" (Achebe 3), he imposes his own reality on people, "His wives, especially the youngest, lived in perpetual fear of his fiery temper" (Achebe 9), demands more of life than life can give, "When did you (Okonkwo) become an old woman?" (Achebe 45), and finally moves from a position of happiness to that of misery, "It is an abomination for a man to take his own life..." (Achebe 147). It is important to establish these facts because it exemplifies Okonkwo's journey, and ultimately that of the Ibo people (as Achebe intended), as tragic in nature.
As stated earlier, Okonkwo was obsessed with success. This manifested itself in many materialistic ways. First, he started out with nothing since he inherited nothing from his debt ridden father. He was forced to borrow seeds from a wealthy man. This was something he hated doing, but realized it was the only way to begin to become the man he wanted to be. "I began to fend for myself at an age when most people still suck at their mothers' breasts. If you give me some yam seeds I shall not fail you." (Achebe 16) Here we can see that Okonkwo started adulthood, in fact supporting his family, at a very early age. He began to cultivate his farm before many of the other townspeople. This unfortunately lead to disaster the first year since the rains came early and much of his crop was destroyed. Okonkwo persisted. Okonkwo was a man possessed with succeeding. "'Since I survived that year,' he always said, 'I shall survive anything.' He put it down to his inflexible will." (Italics by me) This offers the reader a clear picture of the type of man Okonkwo was, very driven and determined to succeed.
Okonkwo also valued physical strength as an element of success. He was known as the best wrestler in all the nine villages and was never beaten. He even beat The Cat who, up to that time, had never been beaten.
"(Okonkwo) was tall and huge, and his bushy eyebrows and wide nose gave him a very severe look... When he walked, his heels hardly touched the ground and he seemed to walk on springs, as if he was going to pounce on somebody." (Achebe 3)
Okonkwo also possessed great wealth, including two barns of yams and three wives. It was looked upon favorably if you took on more than one wife. This meant that you were rich enough to support them. It can be said that Okonkwo became a successful man because he diligently cultivated the energetic and aggressive qualities which were most admired in Umuofia. (Ravenscroft 9)
Since Okonkwo is a tragic hero, he must have a tragic flaw. This flaw comes on two levels. The first of which is his fetish with war, fighting, and conquering. Okonkwo constantly must be engaged in some activity, and like a typical Star Trek "Klingon", this is physical exertion or combat. For Okonkwo, the desire to conquer and subdue is described as being, "...like the desire for woman'. (Achebe 30) He possessed a one-track mind that was focused on nothing, save success. His second tragic flaw is that he can show no other emotion, except anger. He never shows his fondness for the young hostage, Ikemefuna, who eventually regards Okonkwo as his father. Inside, Okonkwo wishes that Ikemefuna was his natural son instead of Nwoye. It is also his flaw that causes him to beat his wife during the weak of peace for, "...killing this banana tree." (Achebe 27) His anger almost causes him to kill his second wife with a gun. He feels very sorry for this, but cannot show his true emotions. The tantamount example of this is when the Oracle of the Hill deems that Ikemefuma must die, but not by Okonkwo's hand, since he calls him father.
"As the man who had cleared his throat drew up and raised his matchet, Okonkwo looked away. He heard the blow. The pot fell and broke in the sand. He heard Ikemefuna cry, 'My father, they have killed me!' as he ran towards him. Dazed with fear, Okonkwo drew his matchet and cut him down. He was afraid of being thought weak." (Achebe 43)
In Okonkwo's mind, he must not be seen by the other villagers as weak. Okonkwo felt love and pity for the boy, he feared that his manliness may be questioned. (Ravenscroft 12) Okonkwo's ultimate fear is becoming like his father, worthless, without honor, and buried above ground without honor and respect. Unfortunately for Okonkwo, the beginning of the end was nearing.
During the funeral ceremony for Ezeudu, Okonkwo's gun exploded, killing Ezeudu's 16 year old son. Ironically, Okonkwo had committed the female portion of this particular crime and was banished to his mother's homeland for seven years. This banishment filled Okonkwo with sorrow. His worst nightmare was becoming reality. Okonkwo cannot see the purposeful balance in the tribal arrangements by which the female principle is felt to be simultaneously weak and sustaining. (Ravenscroft 13) It is also during this exile that the people of the Mbanta allowed the first Christian missionaries to establish a church, win over people of the tribe, and defy the powers of their gods. Okonkwo's own son was one of the first to convert to the new religion. This infuriated Okonkwo.
Unfortunately for Okonkwo, his homecoming wasn't what he thought it would be. He found that the missionaries had established a church there too.
"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 as one. He has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart." (Achebe 124-5)
For Okonkwo, his return was not the triumphant homecoming that he anticipated. He had returned to find that the warlike Umuofia people had become soft like women. The climax of the novel comes when Enoch, a converted Ibo, interrupted the annual worship ceremony of the earth goddess. By doing so, Enoch had killed an ancestral spirit, and Umuofia, and its very foundation, was thrown into chaos. Infuriated, Okonkwo kills a messenger of the white man, sent to stop a meeting. Unfortunately for Okonkwo, the leaders of Umuofia are too divided to follow Okonkwo's warlike lead. (Ravenscroft 14-5) Okonkwo then commits the ultimate abomination, he kills himself.
Okonkwo hung himself because he was unable to maintain a particular faith, and he takes the easiest way out, the way of the coward. Okonkwo killed himself because he refused to change and take in both experiences. He is the one who hung himself, not the society. (Serumaga 76) On the surface it would seem that Okonkwo was driven by success, however, it is my opinion that Okonkwo was driven by fear, fear of becoming like his father, and in that absolute fear he made it happen. Okonkwo's society will continue to exist, in fact it exists today, but not in the shape that Okonkwo would recognize. This is the tragedy that Achebe wrote about and is summed up perfectly in the last lines of the book when an entire culture, all of its oral traditions, customs, ceremonies, lives, the very essence of the Ibo people merited a "reasonable paragraph" in the white man's book, The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger.
1. Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. Portsmouth, New Hampshire: Heinemann Educational Publishers, 1986.
2. Aristotle. Aristotle: The Poetics. "The Longinus: On the Sublime." Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 1960.
3. Ravenscroft, A. Chinua Achebe. Great Britain: Longmans, Green & CO LTD, 1969.
4. Serumaga, Robert. "A Mirror of Integration." Protest and Conflict in African Literature (1969) 76
5. Taiwo, Oladele. Culture and the Nigerian Novel. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1976.
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