During the 19th century, the traditional values of the Igbo people clashed with the values of western culture (Osei-Nyame 149-150). More specifically, the ideas of gender roles presented in Achebe’s Things Fall Apart contrast how the Igbo people view the role of men and women. During this time period, western literature did not appropriately depict African culture, therefore, Achebe gave more first-person insight into their culture (Adichie). On the surface of this novel, women are seen as submissive and obedient to their husbands, however, Achebe embeds a more important message about the significance of a mother figure in a person’s life by showing the downside of living only on the idea of masculinity. Achebe portrays Okonkwo's masculinity by, “I will not have a son who cannot hold up his head in the gathering of the clan. I would sooner strangle him with my own hands (Achebe). This shows that Okonkwo is more concerned about his reputation and masculinity rather than his son. Achebe demonstrates that gender roles are indeed a problem because of Okonkwo’s fear to show anything that is remotely close to being feminine or anything that exhibits weakness. Igbo culture is what Okonkwo strictly follows and it proves to be damaging not only to his community but to himself.
Achebe realized that the way western literature depicted African culture in the 19th century was not a correct representation of his own culture (Nyame). Achebe wanted to reclaim his culture and provide a more accurate representation of past African culture. One of the main discrepancies that Achebe focused on was gender roles. Even though most of the novel was focused on Okonkwo and his journey of him trying to prove his masculinity, there is an overarching issue of women's suppression. The 19th century was a time when women's roles were mostly limited to just household chores and being submissive to their husbands as shown in Things Fall Apart (Bates).
Achebe’s Things Fall Apart first demonstrates the difference in gender roles by describing the stereotypical viewpoint of men and how they are supposed to be tough and brutal with their wives. On the other hand, women are shown as submissive and obedient. Allowing women to be reduced to the ground, gives Okonkwo and his sons the ability to achieve their full prominence (Jeyifo). Additionally, if we relate these roles in the sense of marriage, this novel supports the notion of women as possessions in marriage rather than an equal partnership between two people. In the novel, Okonkwo was portrayed as a dominant male who ruled over his family through aggression. This was shown in the novel, “Okonkwo ruled his household with a heavy hand. His wives, especially the youngest, lived in perpetual fear of his fiery temper.” (Achebe). It seems like the way to portray dominance and masculinity is to instill fear and pain in others. Okonkwo would do anything to make sure his masculinity and pride were intact such as even killing a young boy that he particularly liked even more so than his own son (Achebe). Traditional values back in the 19th century seem to disregard one’s own dislikes and likes as well as beliefs. Okonkwo's values seem to be derived straight from the way his culture does things rather than using his own moral system.
Furthermore, this distinction between gender was ingrained into their culture starting from when they were children. Children from young ages were expected to perform their roles as soon as they were competent enough. Boys for example were expected to start showing their masculinity by doing “manly” tasks such as doing the heavy lifting and pleasing their father. Girls on the other hand were expected to start farming and cleaning and doing household chores to please their fathers. Since children were forced into their gender roles at such a young age, they grow up in their social roles. This supports the reason why Okonkwo is as obedient to his culture as he is. Also, the fact that he saw his father as being weak drove him to be the dominant and hardworking man he is. The way Okonkwo viewed his father can be seen by,” Perhaps down in his heart, Okonkwo was not a cruel man. But his whole life was dominated by fear, the fear of failure and weakness. It was not external but lay deep within himself. It was the fear of himself, lest he should be found to resemble his father “(Achebe 13). By seeing his father as an embarrassment, he embraced his masculine personality in order to prove himself as a strong figure for his wife and children and in order to not be like his father. His brutality towards his wife and children also are a result of the gender roles presented in this culture. Okonkwo finds himself attempting to please his social role rather than pleasing himself and his family because he wants to be the opposite of what his father was.
Under the surface, the importance of women is shown when their role as a mother is seen as supreme. This role is shown when Okonkwo was exiled into his “motherland”. With further analysis, we see that mothers are always there for families whenever they are distressed or need someone to comfort them. This demonstrates the importance of having a mother figure in this society. Even though they don’t get treated with equality and are degraded to just housewives. They are still always there as mother figures, even if their hard work is not flaunted. They are in that sense “supreme” because, without women in their society, men would not have the backbone to fall back on when things go bad or a support system for them. Men need this mother figure in society because it provides a home and sanctity for them. In another instance, when the priestess is mentioned in the novel, it shows that men listen to them as a sort of medium between them and the gods. Their role as Priestess shows that they are able to make decisions and guide the village in their life. It also runs back into the idea that women are supreme in that the men look up to what the priestess has to say for guidance in life. They also don’t question her authority as they see the priestess as a second to God.
The culture in this novel respects masculinity. Okonkwo’s second wife, Ekwefi, is the most rebellious out of all his wives. Even though Okonkwo would completely deny or reject his wife every time she did something, she was still his favorite. This is because she shows the strength that his other wives didn’t show. Even though she is a woman, Okonkwo still respects the effort that Ekwefi demonstrates.
Even though Achebe provides the ways in which women's roles are respectable, he doesn’t offer a clear solution as to how to solve the roles in which genders are put into. He merely shows instances in which women are supreme and powerful but doesn’t present a more permanent solution. His novel in fact did address the problem able gender roles, but he failed to include many key ideas. Ideas such as how women’s roles could possibly become more prominent or how a society could change for the better with a better interpretation of gender roles.
Gender roles were a problem in the 19th Century. Society was mainly focused on the masculinity of men rather than finding a balance between the two genders. Achebe’s Things Fall Apart emphasized the roles in which women are one of a kind. Through showing this society in which mainly masculinity is supported, we are able to see how women’s roles are the ones who hold up the society and support the men. There are certain things that only a mother/woman can perform, and this novel emphasizes that idea. Achebe brings his western audience to experience a more first-person glance into African culture. His novel not only gives insight into his culture but as well provides a message that questions the notion of gender roles in the 19-20th century.
- Jeyifo, Biodun. “Okonkwo and His Mother: Things Fall Apart and Issues of Gender in the Constitution of African Postcolonial Discourse.” Callaloo, vol. 16, no. 4, 1993, pp. 847–858. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2932213.
- Osei-Nyame, Kwadwo. “Chinua Achebe Writing Culture: Representations of Gender and Tradition in ‘Things Fall Apart.’” Research in African Literatures, vol. 30, no. 2, 1999, pp. 148–164. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3820564.
- Bates, Robert H. “When Things Fell Apart state failure in Late-Century Africa.” Cambridge University Press, 2015.
- Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi. “Things Fall Apart Introduction.” Everyman’s Library, 1992.
- Achebe, Chinua. The African Trilogy. Penguin Deluxe Classics Edition, 2017.
- I feel like in this essay I was able to provide more textual evidence than in my last one. In addition, I feel like I was able to cite more sources for the information I gathered rather than just throwing it on paper. I feel like I provided adequate examples and evidence to support Achebe’s message. As well as questioning whether his message was effective.