Things Fall Apart: A review
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August 28, 2004
We cannot expect to stand still on shaky ground. Thus Okonkwo, the protagonist, was doomed to fall from the start.
Achebe begins the novel by providing the motive behind Okonkwo's apparent imbalance. The fault lay in the hands of his father who, according to Okonkwo, possessed the ways of a woman. Okonkwo's father held no titles, and was perpetually indebted to his kinsmen. He represented one of the lowest ranks of Umofia; he was an agbala, meaning a woman or a man without title. But he was a gentle being who possessed great affection for music and stories narrated by women. Because of this, Okonkwo hated his father who proved to be an embarrassment to him and his clan and his father's character, which was that of a 'woman's.
Okonkwo vowed to be everything his father was not and so he worked hard to attain material prosperity. He ensured that he had property in land, yam, wives and children. He also had ambition to acquire the highest title of the land, which would have proved his so-called masculinity. Okonkwo also demonstrated his male vigor by terminating Amalinze's seven-year reign as wrestling victor. Okonkwo's prowess was reverberated throughout the land and this boosted his male ego considerably.
Okonkwo, despite his material success, had to deal with issues that confused and pained him inwardly. Firstly, he could not understand why his daughter who truly understood him and who possessed the spirit of a great warrior was not a boy. Secondly, he wondered why his first-born son, Nwoye, possessed a woman-like temperament. Surely his disgust for Nwoye was as infinite as his love for his daughter, Ekwefi.
Fate had it that Okonkwo would become guardian to another young boy who (along with a young virgin girl) entered Umofia as payment for a crime committed by a nearby villager to a member of his tribe. Ikemefuna proved to be the son that Okonkwo wanted Nwoye to be and he loved him as if he was his own. This love was tested when, after three years, the village council decided to kill the boy. Although aggrieved, and going against the advice of his friend, Obierika, Okonkwo actively participated in the killing of Ikemefuna. This was done to prove his 'maleness' as well as his callousness. But guilt and pain gnawed at his heart for several days; he could not escape the embrace of womanly emotion.
Okonkwo's personal chi (god) was surely against him as he shot one of his own clansmen incidentally during a wedding ceremony. Thus he was banished for seven years and was forced to return to his mother's land. This was an opportunity for Okonkwo to reconcile himself with his female half, to understand the great value of woman and to balance his self for his own betterment. But he did not learn this lesson; not even after seven years.
When he returned to his society, Okonkwo noted the visible changes that took place. One of the most obvious additions to the village was the white man. During Okonkwo's absence, the Europeans were able to establish their schools, their church and their government in Umofia. This shift in the order posed a threat to Okonkwo's ambition to achieve material greatness and attain the highest title of the land. Okonkwo, in this regard, wanted to purge the village of this evil element and re-establish Igbo tradition. He understood clearly that his only chance of success was within the bounds of the traditional African system. This was the only system that would allow him to become a 'man'.
His hope of eliminating the white man and his influence grew dim as the Church had a rapidly expanding fellowship, including Nwoye. Christianity seemed to be the answer as acts such as the wanton killing of twins, female abuse and ostracism were rejected by the Church. Christianity offered them a second chance and an opportunity to rise above the iniquities of their archaic ways. At the same time, it demolished Okonkwo's reverence and his titles soon meant nothing to them, they were all equal in Jesus' eyes. This is what tore Okonkwo apart: his fear that his worth was lessened and that he would no longer be better than others in the society. Okonkwo made several outbursts throughout the novel condemning men without titles and others who displayed womanly emotion. He was also aware of some of the 'secrets' of the society that were, in reality, attempts to subjugate the population by means of fear. A clear picture of this is painted by Achebe who insinuated that Okonkwo was an egwuwu or an impersonator of spirits. Unmasking these impersonators was said to be a great evil and was punishable by death or severe illness. But Okonkwo knew fully well that such would never occur. After all, they were flesh and blood just like their clansmen. It was only until later on in the novel that an egwuwu was unmasked and to the villagers' surprise, the perpetrator escaped unscathed. Thus, the tribe's own dishonesty caused its eventual collapse; Okonkwo's own dishonesty caused his eventual collapse.
Okonkwo, at the end of his struggle died a dishonorable death as a result of taking a Christian's life into his own hands. This was meted out because of his frustrated hopes of becoming the greatest in the land and because Christianity was a weak establishment, like a woman. Okonkwo realized at an instant that Umofia also acted like women when they refused to retaliate against the white man and his establishment and defend his act of murder. It was too much for him to bear... the fact that he could not choose between one 'woman' and another 'woman'. And so he died a 'womanly' or cowardly death, suicide.
Okonkwo was a victim of both ignorance and arrogance which led to him being severely imbalanced. His desire to become a 'man' was hindered by his inability to accept and love woman, the life string of humanity. Even after she saved him while he was in exile, she still did not receive Okonkwo's love. The main character, Okonkwo, also showed signs of egotism, which made him fall harder. Despite his inward show of concern, he never seemed to care for anything other than his good name. Holding on to such a weak rope made the break imminent. A balanced and honest life would have brought guaranteed benefits, holistic knowledge and love of his self. His fall was a sad one but he was largely responsible for his own demise.