Okonkwo, in Chinua Achebe’s ‘Things Fall Apart’, is a complex character who teaches us many lessons about life, society, and culture. According to the definition of a tragic hero in literature, one could easily consider Okonkwo a tragic hero. Okonkwo’s life and death reveal tragedies which can be avoided with careful judgment and informed decision-making. In this essay, I will outline the elements of a tragic hero as they pertain to Okonkwo, and conclude with some thoughts on how to avoid such tragic endings.
Okonkwo accrues wealth for himself despite his humble beginnings, and he has a fatal flaw related to his need for status in Umuofia. He has multiple downfalls, before the ultimate downfall of suicide. However, the downfall is not entirely his fault as there are influences by external factors related to his cultural beliefs, and the imposing imperialists during pre-colonial and post-colonial times. By the end of the story, catharsis is experienced because Okonkwo will forever be in suffering because his suicide unsettles the spirits. He has not managed to escape suffering, but in fact worsened it for himself.
To begin with, I will examine Okonkwo’s establishment as a person of status. As a young man, he wins over the respect of his clan by wrestling and winning against Amalinze the cat. Okonkwo reveals his strength and courage in this act. Once he has gained favour from the clan, he goes on to build his wealth through yam farming. He acquires a big household with many wives and children. In Umuofian society, a person with material wealth is respected and considered a successful person. This sets Okonkwo up as a heroic protagonist.
However, when looking deeper into the life that Okonkwo leads, there are flaws to be acknowledged in his thoughts and actions. Due to the childhood shame he experiences, from his father being a laughing stock in the community, he develops a form of inferiority complex, and sets out to prove himself worthy of respect. Okonkwo places a lot of pressure on himself to perform to the clan’s standards of masculinity. As a cost for this achievement, he compromises his morals and humanity.
Okonkwo becomes stubborn, arrogant, selfish and abusive. In his desperate quest for power, he does not take time to process the emotions which could prevent his suicide. Instead, he lashes out at his wives with violence. When faced with life’s painful traumas (such as the killing of Ikemefuna), he does not speak to his wives or the clan’s elders for emotional support. He takes the burdens upon himself, without a support structure. He is focused on meeting the expectations of his clan while simultaneously trying to prove to himself that he is not like his father. He is consumed with this pursuit despite the costs to his humanity.
To exacerbate Okonkwo’s underlying feelings of low self-esteem, there are times when he is helpless in his circumstances. He cannot do anything to help his sick child Enzima, he cannot stop the murder of Ikemefuna, he cannot stop the gun from accidently shooting Ezeudu’s son, he cannot stop the Igbo from converting to Christianity, he cannot stop the Western colonisers from gaining political control of Umuofia, and he cannot stop time and change from occurring while he is in exile. In these instances when he feels powerless, he hardens himself further, and becomes harder on himself, until he eventually runs out of solutions to save himself from powerlessness, and to save his countrymen from colonisation.
Finally in defiance to the colonisers, he refuses arrest, and takes his own life as a means of escape from colonisation. Through this act of suicide, Okonkwo loses all the honour he once held in the clan. According to Igbo culture, suicide is seen as a cowardly and weak action. The Igbo also believe that Okonkwo’s spirit will not rest because he has defied the spirits by killing himself. Okonkwo is unable to hold onto his power and control. He is unable to stop the colonisers. He ultimately loses his life, tragically, because he is unable to live without power and control. And as a result, his spirit remains restless forever.
Okonkwo’s story teaches that the pursuit of power and control leads to one’s own demise, if not managed with boundaries. Wealth and status can easily be lost if emotions are not well-managed. Processing trauma is key for mental health, in order to avoid a pitiful ending such as Okonkwo’s. Unhealthy societal expectations, and unsupportive social structures, harm individuals’ personhood. Okonkwo’s tragedy reiterates the African proverb: “It takes a village to raise a child”. Supportive community is imperative for the welfare of its people, individually and collectively.
Achebe, C. Achebe Discusses Africa 50 Year After ‘Things Fall Apart’ [Online] Available: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JHF_w0gkyiI&list=PLAN4Q5iN3oRKvl6eFqFH0cTfvFbdoLMF9&index=16&t=6s [17 May 2022]
Achebe, C. An Evening With Achebe Chinua Achebe [Online] Available: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M5OAjnG6rKo&list=PLAN4Q5iN3oRKvl6eFqFH0cTfvFbdoLMF9&index=15 [17 May 2022]
Achebe, C. Things Fall Apart. Penguin Random House LLC., New York, United States of America. 2017
Anyokwu, C. Re-Imagining Gender in Chinua Achebe’s ‘Things Fall Apart’ [Online] Available: https://www.jstor.org/stable/41210316 [19 May 2022]
Nnoromele, P.C. The Plight of a Hero in Achebe’s ‘Things Fall Apart’ [Online] Available: https://www.jstor.org/stable/25112519 [19 May 2022]
Rhoads, D.A.Culture in Chinua Achebe’s ‘Things Fall Apart’ [Online] Available: https://www.jstor.org/stable/524733 [19 May 2022]
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