Although Chinua Achebe’s novel, Things Fall Apart is the broadly read African novel, the failure of its main character leaves readers with many unanswered questions. Central to the many questions is why Achebe allowed the aspiring but brutal young person to take away his life at the time everyone looked unto him? Other commentators argue that Okonkwo’s pride and anger contributed to his downfall while others blame the fragmentation of the Umuofia society coupled with cultural destruction by the white man (Lakshmi 167). Yet, others support both views. These factors indeed contributed to Okonkwo’s failure, but to assume that they are the main reasons why Okonkwo failed is limiting the perceptions presented in the novel. From the book, the reader can conclude that the many harmful effects in Okonkwo’s family, society, and personal life are not necessarily due to his pride and anger. Still, instead, they are functions of heroism in the cultural belief systems of the Igbos. The many harmful effects in Okonkwo’s family, society, and personal life are not necessarily due to his pride and anger, but instead, they are the primary functions of heroism among the people of Igbo.
Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is not a book without a cultural setting; instead, it is a novel rooted in a set of specific social traditions, cultural beliefs, and customs of a people. The characters and events in this book are better understood from this perspective. Analyzing or viewing the novel from a different perspective is in itself rendering the imprecise of the book’s particular actions, actors, and events. Achebe provides a vivid description of the Igbo society at the end of the 19th century. Additionally, Chinua Achebe highlights the positive and harmful cultural practices of Igbo’s social practices, political organizations, religious, and festivities of the season. On other occasions, when asked to comment about the Igbo society as presented in Things Fall Apart, Achebe said that the characters in the book are normal people and their actions reflect the events of a natural human being (Cobham and Bernth 91).
Achebe presents a society that has unwittingly given in to a new faith and ways of living which is contrary to the ancestral wish. Before colonialism took root in Africa, Africa had its religion and culture. With the advent of colonialism, Achebe presents an Umuofia society that is overburdened by the white culture of hope and colonialism. This culture forces people to blasphemy their ancestors and their hero are fractured. Additionally, the people are divided, and society’s perception is shattered. The British District Commissioner takes control over people with the full imposition of his culture in Umuofia society. In this case, Achebe presents a society where the total imposition of the white man’s culture, values, and political structure are imposed upon the Igbo culture. Subsequently, Okonkwo, the hero finds himself plunged into disaster with no option to save his family, society, or himself against the enemy but to take away his life. Obirieka describes Okonkwo as one of the greatest men in Umuofia who the society had forced to kill himself and now buried like a dog (Achebe 147). However, Okonkwo’s suicide does not surprise the community because taking away ones’ life is a conception of a hero in the Igbo community. Obirieka’s description discredits the notion that Okonkwo’s pride and anger led to his failure. Instead, his action is a function of heroism according to the Igbo culture.
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Achebe describes a hero in the Igbo community as a courageous person with the ability to destabilize the communal forces while pursuing his interests. Additionally, in a unique way, he is a man noted because of his actions that stand out uniquely. Hence, his works are defined ambivalently and that they must be above the typical behaviors. In this sense, a hero does not operate in seclusion, but he is a product of a social milieu in which he lives (Tobalase 23). This is the person who is determined by consistently opposing society’s cause of tensions to gain personal reputation and fame. Paradoxically, a hero is a both a disintegrating and a disrupting principle of the community. In this context, Okonkwo becomes the epitome of this complex perception of the journey towards heroism in Igbo culture. Achebe describes Okonkwo’s journey as a life-spring mission with the ultimate goal of becoming a hero (Achebe 92). Unfortunately, the journey to heroism in his society is fraught with myriad difficulties. Perhaps, these difficulties contributed to his anger for not achieving his mission, making him fail his family, community, and even himself.
Okonkwo was determined to emulate his father’s reputation, who has, however, achieved nothing. Since a man is judged with his worth rather than the worth of the parent, Okonkwo wants to succeed in every aspect that the father had failed. Achebe juxtaposes the two views of success and failure and tries to reconcile them. Okonkwo’s father, Unoka, is a lazy and idle person who does not even afford to think about tomorrow (Achebe 3). Achebe describes him as a person who takes pride in drinking palm wine and dancing as a way of avoiding responsibility. Unoka had no title in society and that he would not endure a place of blood (Achebe 8). This description contrasts with Okonkwo’s character. Hence, for Okonkwo to become a hero, he knew that he had to achieve whatever his father failed to accomplish in Igbo. At the novel’s onset, Achebe describes Okonkwo as a person who does not take fortitude with failed persons in Igbo. Okonkwo’s life was characterized by anxiety to lose. Since he did not like the place of his father in society, he hated him but wanted to work to prove a hero in him.
Additionally, the pressures to balance between personal, family, and social life contributes to Okonkwo’s downfall as the hero of Igbo. Most often Okonkwo found himself at the crossroads on which route to go as he pursues fame and reputation. A typical example involves when the Priestess of Agbala comes for Enzinma to get Agbala’s blessings. Although he is committed to obeying the laws of the land, he is, however, reluctant to these blessings and wants to oppose the traditional social order (Achebe 79). Okonkwo saw the Priestess’ arrival as an intrusion to the family’s private life. On seeing the disapproval from Okonkwo, the Priestess screams telling him that it is a curse for Okonkwo to talk while a god is speaking. Obierika, a character who claims that Okonkwo is not committed to obeying and following the society’s culture, agrees that there is a lack of balance between private life and societal expectations from a hero. Unlike Obierika, Okonkwo is a calm person who lets his actions speak for him. However, the accumulation of these pressures internally leads Okonkwo to kill himself (Achebe 88).
Contrary to some arguments that Okonkwo’s pride and anger contributed to the many problems in his family, society, and personal life, his failure is also as a result of the lack of balance between private life and societal expectations from the person they accord respect and hope in society. Additionally, Okonkwo’s failure to live like a hero is defined by the lack of equilibrium between the two cultures and he decides to take a short cut in life by terminating his life.