Table of contents
- Introduction: Unveiling the Complexities of Masculinity in Igbo Society
- The Dual Forces of Fear and Belief: Okonkwo's Struggle with Masculinity
- Nativism and Its Interplay with Toxic Masculinity
- The Generational Impact: Okonkwo's Relationship with His Sons
- The Role of Women in a Masculine-Dominated Society
- Conclusion: The Tragic Downfall of Okonkwo and the Igbo Tradition
- Works Cited
Introduction: Unveiling the Complexities of Masculinity in Igbo Society
No singular work of the twentieth century explores the complexity of the Igbo tradition and its ties with concrete nativism and toxic masculinity like Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart does. This adorable story, set in in the transition period that straddles the pre-colonial Igbo society and the time of the arrival of the Europeans, i.e. during the late nineteenth century revolves around Okonkwo as the epicenter of the ideas that the debut novel of Achebe seeks to birth into the world. Umuofia is the fictional Clan from which Okonkwo emanates. The story touches the lives of Okonkwo’s father, Unoka, his wives (especially the vocal Ekwefi), and his children, particularly Nwoye, Ezinma, and Ikemefuna (who was indeed his adopted child.)
The Dual Forces of Fear and Belief: Okonkwo's Struggle with Masculinity
Achebe shows in Things Fall Apart, an honest description of the inclinations of gender and nativity that ravaged – and still ravages – the traditional Igbo society. The reason for this, as illustrated in the life of Okonkwo is hinged upon the double-edged sword of fear and belief. Okonkwo had an intense, pathological – you might want to say – fear of failure. Of underachievement. Of not doing well. And on account of his experience with his father, Unoka, which was regarded as a failure because he had no property or wealth, owed a lot of debts, and enjoyed playing the flute, mere flute. Also, this fear is somewhat inextricably tied to gender roles, hence the infusion of masculinity. Okonkwo believed that men ought to be successful or die in the process of trying. That a man who did not strive to achieve, or who sought pleasures in ‘meaningless’ things such as music and conversations was a failure and ought not to be valued or regarded. Okonkwo therefore, more specifically put, feared not living up to the standard of men. Secondly, there was a belief that had been ingrained into the very fabric of his existence that the masculine gender was inherently superior and more powerful than its female counterpart. This belief is also held by most members of the Igbo community. This widespread belief in the superiority of men was born out of the idea that males expressed dominant characteristics of anger, violence, and strength which were above the more mellow displays of affection and tenderness that are feminine and weak. This belief underlines many experiences of words and actions in this story. For example, stories of war and battles were masculine and were meant to be told to boys, while folklore was of a feminine inclination. Also, Yam was regarded as the king of crops, a masculine crop to be cultivated by men, while cocoyam and the others were for women.
These fears and beliefs go a long way to show through the lenses of Okonkwo how much gender roles meant to the traditional Igbo society and how masculinity, that is, toxic masculinity, was the order of the day.
Nativism and Its Interplay with Toxic Masculinity
Also, there was a very expressive display of Nativism, which is simply a policy of protecting the interests of native-born inhabitants against those of immigrants, in Achebe’s spectacular story. It was shown in the interaction between Okonkwo, the protagonist, and the ideas of the newly coming white men. Okonkwo, who had so much respect and affiliation with his culture did not fancy the idea of foreigners introducing novelties to the Clan. And to worsen it all, these novelties were greatly antagonistic to the already existing and predominant cultures and lifestyles of their society and time. It is this nativism that heralded the dangerous spiral that led to his eventual downfall especially when one considers its interrelatedness with toxic masculinity, as there is always a need for a man, at that time, to prove his worth. To remain resolute and unshaken. To be stubborn and resistant. Okonkwo displayed in full these so-called masculine characteristics and it did not end well.
This essay seeks to explore the many ways in which Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, having Okonkwo in the middle of everything, expressed the important themes of Nativism and toxic masculinity, citing various examples that sprouted chapter after chapter for the most part of the book.
In the first part of Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, there is a clear explanation of Unoka and his laziness and Okonkwo’s bitterness towards the man who happened to be his father. The first chapter opens up by describing Okonkwo as a brave man with great achievements, “His fame rested on solid personal achievements. As a young man of eighteen he had brought honor to his village by throwing Amalinze the Cat”. This description contrasts sharply with his lazy father, who was no good. He was a man who was poor, could only take one wife, and was largely unable to support his family. Indeed, he owed too many debts and was frequently called an “Agbala”, a word that means a woman, or a man who has taken no titles. Unoka, who enjoyed music, was greatly hated by his son, Okonkwo, and this strong sense of displeasure and disregard was brought upon Okonkwo’s first son, Nwoye who was also remarkably lazy.
The Generational Impact: Okonkwo's Relationship with His Sons
In the book's second chapter, Achebe wrote, “Okonkwo’s first son, Nwoye, was then twelve years old but was already causing his father great anxiety for his incipient laziness. In Okonkwo’s opinion, laziness is not a characteristic of men. Men ought to be hard-working, they should love battles and farming. They should not be interested in music and conversations. They should be action men. Okonkwo always enjoined his male children to listen, to his, masculine stories of violence and bloodshed instead of the more creative stories of the tortoise and his wily ways and other soft, weakening stories, as Okonkwo thought. These latter stories were those Nwoye preferred, and for this constant drift away from masculinity as it seemed, he received a constant beating from his father. Once, he declared, that rather than having a son who cannot hold up his head in the gathering of the clan, he would rather “strangle him with his own hands” (Achebe page 28)
Okonkwo, indeed, had a life that was devoted to masculinity in a way that became toxic. He did not want his manliness to be questioned. This was shown in the story of his adopted son, Ikemefuna, whom he grew so fond of (although he never showed it) and ended up killing because ‘He was afraid of being thought weak” (Achebe Page 53).
Many a time, Okonkwo put his masculinity at the very fore of his existence. He raised a family with a military hand and no affection or compassion whatsoever for his wife and children because those were traits of weakness and femininity. He insisted that his sons, no matter how young, learned how to grow Yams. “Yam stood for manliness” (Achebe Page 28).
Okonkwo did not want his position as a man, and as the head of the family to be questioned by anybody, and hence he did not take any challenge or questioning of authority lightly. Ekwefi had once had an argument during the New Yam Festival with her husband, Okonkwo, and on that account, ‘Okonkwo gave her a sound beating and left her and her only daughter weeping” (Achebe Page 33) and even when she mocked his poor skills at hunting, he shot at her with his gun because his masculinity cannot and should not be questioned.
This position of Okonkwo did great in keeping him at a great distance from his children. Indeed, over many centuries the African patriarchal system has allowed men to dominate women, and also encouraged a sort of distance between them and the children because they cannot afford to show affection otherwise they would be ruled off as being weak. This, as expected made the relationship between himself and his children very tenuous.
In an essay, Khumalo Thuso, states that contrary to popular belief in the Igbo society, men (fathers) should be more involved in raising their children. He argues that feeding, bathing, affection, etc. do not make a man less masculine but a better contributor to society. (Khumalo Thuso, 2014).
The Role of Women in a Masculine-Dominated Society
But as is widespread knowledge, women are not respected in the traditional Igbo society. Of course, it is a man’s world, they say. Achebe shows this in the ninth chapter of Things Fall Apart, the only chapter where Okonkwo’s mother was mentioned. He had in that paragraph recalled his mother’s stories about why mosquitoes always went for the ears which he thought was “as silly as all women’s stories”. Biodun Jeyifo comments on this in his work, where he writes that “Okonkwo’s memory of his mother’s stories in his childhood is very easily suppressed; and it is easily consigned to the domain of “silly women’s stories” (Biodun Jeyifo, 1993).
There is also an associated fear that comes with the relationship between the men and the women which Jeyifo describes as a “deep-rooted male insecurity about fear of female power and creativity with a corresponding need or will to tame it, domesticate it, marginalize it, and project it as the gift and vocation of a few ‘exceptional’ women who are thus; like Chielo in Things Fall Apart, ‘honorary men’ (Biodun Jeyifo, 1993).
Therefore, it is evident that as far as the narrative of the life and time of Okonkwo is concerned in Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, women occupied a tiny, irrelevant and insignificant space within the grand scheme of social, political, and economic things.
There was also in the book a sort of silencing of the female characters. In the analysis of “The Headstrong Historian,” VanZanteen uncovers the absence of direct speech from any of the female characters. (VanZanteen, 2015).
Things Fall Apart has been a prototype narration of the role masculinity plays in the Igbo tradition. Also, many other works have unconsciously displayed a sort of toxic masculinity. In Petra Fiserora’s analysis of “Hunter’s Run”, an American Sci-fi novel, she writes that “the novel is filled to the brim with commentary on men and ‘mankind’ so much so that the greatest plot point is when the protagonist confronts his harmful ideal of hegemonic masculinity and admits that he despises the toxic person that it has made him”. And the authors of this book did not see this and instead describes the book as having the themes of humanity and identity.
In the second and third parts of the outstanding novel, Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe brings to the fore the component of Okonkwo which is Nativism. It is in these parts that the Europeans come into the Umuofia clan armed with the soothing, soft, religion of Christianity. This religion sought to destroy all that the customs of the Umuofia clan had built and established, and Okonkwo found this absolutely repulsive and uncomfortable.
Rahul Singh explores nativism and masculinity in his work titled, “Things fall apart as a postcolonial text – An assertion of African culture”. He tells us how the emergence of a mellow religion that followed the coming of the Europeans created a split in the beliefs of the people of the Umuofia clan and especially the younger generation who grew towards Christianity and her ways and consequently let go of their traditional beliefs. This, Okonkwo did not like (Singh, Rahul, 2013).
Even more so that his first son, Nwoye found the softness and calm of this new religion attractive. In the book, Obierika, in response to Okonkwo’s question of whether the white man understood their custom said, “How can he when he does not even speak our tongue? But he says that our customs are bad, and our own brothers who have taken up his religion also say that our customs are bad. How do you think we can fight when our own brothers have turned against us? 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 over our brothers, and our clan can no longer act like one. He has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart” (Achebe, page 176)
Okonkwo, after a while of the coming of the perceived intruders, decided to wage war against them. During a meeting in that regard, a messenger from the white men was beheaded by him because he had tried to stop the meeting. And in order not to face the humiliation of being tried in a court ruled by these white people. In order not to have his masculinity questioned. Rather than all that show of weakness, Okonkwo thought that he’d rather face death, leading him to take his own life.
Conclusion: The Tragic Downfall of Okonkwo and the Igbo Tradition
In conclusion, In the classic novel, Things Fall Apart, Achebe’s narration of the complexities of the Igbo tradition that had in its fabrics the themes of nativism and toxic masculinity explains the life of Okonkwo, who was a strong, hardworking man, unlike his father, and had in him a strong fear for failure, which he considered a feature of men who should not be called men. It is this fear of not being seen as man enough that drives him directly into prosperity, and indirectly into an unexpected sad end of death. His life is examined in relation to that of his family and other members of the Umuofia clan.
The ego of men is displayed in several instances in the book Things Fall Apart. Also, the need for women to tend to these fragile egos or face the consequences is also shown. The demand for male children to live up to such masculine expectations was typified by the relationship between Okonkwo and his son, Nwoye.
In addition, the fastidious nature of Okonkwo when it came to customs and culture cannot be overlooked. Okonkwo did not want the dilution of his culture. He did not want the foreign inflections. He despised the femininity of the Christian religion, and her attempt to alter the beliefs held firmly by his clan members. Okonkwo was said to have stood his ground. Without compromise, and even murdered one of the messengers of the Europeans.
And instead of being tried by a foreign, strange, jury full of weak, emotional, feminine men, he would resort to taking his own life seeing as his own clan’s people were not one anymore and the strings of custom and tradition that seemed to have held them together had been severed by the incoming of these foreigners and everything they stood for, everything he stood for had fallen apart.
- Achebe Chinua, Things Fall Apart. New York: Anchor Books, Doubleday, 1994.
- Fiserova, Petra, “Monster: Masculinity as an invisible major theme in hunter’s run” Journal of International Women’s studies. 20.3 (2019); 17-27.
- Jeyifo, Biodun. “Okonkwo and his the mother; Things Fall Apart and issues of gender in the constitution of African post-colonial discourse” Callaloo, Vol. 16, no. 4, 1993, pp 847-858. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2932213
- Khumalo, Thuso. “African Fathers Urged to Step out of Toxic Masculinity”. Washington: federal information and news dispatch, Inc, 2014.
- Singh, Rahul. “Things fall apart as a post-colonial text – an assertion of African culture” Language in India, Aug. 2013, p.271.
- Vanzant, Susan. “The Headstrong Historian”: Writing with Things Fall Apart. Research in African Literatures, vol. 46, no.2 (2015), pp 85-103