In this essay I am going to analyse the tragic role of the central character from the novel “Things Fall Apart” written by the Nigerian author Chinua Achebe in 1958, Okonkwo, who goes from having a good life and power within his clan to being a man driven to death by his misery and his misfortune. I will use the guidelines provided by Aristotle in order to demonstrate that Okonkwo falls within the tragic hero profile established by the Greek philosopher.
Aristotle defined the tragic hero archetype describing his characteristics. The philosopher suggested in his manuscript entitled “Poetics” that the hero of a tragedy should experience:
- Hamartia: The tragic flaw or error that causes the fall of the hero.
- Peripeteia: The change of fortune caused by the hero’s hamartia. It is the trigger for the action of the tragic story. In Aristotle’s words, hamartia is defined as “reversal of the Situation is a change by which the action veers round to its opposite, subject always to our rule of probability or necessity” (20).
- Anagnorisis: The crucial moment of dramatic revelation in which the hero discovers that the peripeteia is the result of his actions. Aristotle defines it as ‘a change from ignorance to knowledge, producing love or hate between the persons destined by the poet for good or bad fortune’ (20).
- Katharsis: It is the feeling of compassion or fear that the public experiences in an emphatic way towards the hero after his tragic fate.
The tragic protagonist of this African novel is a tough, self-made and respected man among the Igbo clan of Umofia.
Okonkwo’s hamartia lies in his fear of becoming his father as we can infer in this fragment: “But his whole life was dominated by fear, the fear of failure and of weakness. It was deeper and more intimate than the fear of evil and capricious gods and of magic, the fear of the forest, and of the forces of nature, malevolent, red in tooth and claw. Okonkwo’s fear was greater than these. It was not external but lay deep within himself. It was the fear of himself, lest he should be found to resemble his father. Even as a little boy he had resented his father’s failure and weakness, and even now he still remembered how he had suffered when a playmate had told him that his father was agbala. That was how Okonkwo first came to know that agbala was not only another name for a woman, it could also mean a man who had taken no title. And so Okonkwo was ruled by one passion – to hate everything that his father Unoka had loved. One of those things was gentleness and another was idleness.” (Achebe 9,10).
Okonkwo remembers Unoka as a bad head of the family, being an unproductive man, with aversion to violence and passion for music, an activity described as ‘effeminate’ in the eyes of his son and Igbo society. Unoka died as an indebted man with bad reputation within the clan. Fact that causes Okonkwo a deep embarrassment towards his father and an obsession with hard work.
Another consequence of this fear of weakness that characterized his father, according to Okonkwo, is wanting to maintain his manhood at any cost, making him behave in a violent and impulsive way with his family and repressing all emotion generated in him. This aggressive behaviour of Okonkwo, the abusive attitude he has towards his family and the murder of Ikemefuna originates the peripeteia: when the missionaries spread the Christian religion in Umofia, his son Nyowe embraces the new religion, finding in Christianity an escape route from the brutality and repression of his father regarding the sensitive and peaceful personality that Nyowe has, due to the fact that Okonkwo considers him ‘effeminate’ for having those traits.
After being in exile, Okonkwo discovers this new situation in his land where everything has changed radically. The religion of the newcomers has imposed on the now obsolete beliefs of the Igbo, and those ‘weak’ traits that he detested are now praised. Then Okonkwo realizes he cannot do anything to avoid the invasion of the white men and the huge impact they have on the clan since very few men of the tribe are ready for a rebellion, which produces in him the moment of anagnorisis:
“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 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 124).
So, devoid of all hope and having nothing left to live for or, better said, fight Okonkwo, the last bulwark of the almost eradicated pre-colonial culture of the Igbo clan, hangs himself on a tree, which is ironic because for him and for Igbo, suicide is described as an ‘effeminate’ act and is a great crime for their deities and ancestors:
“It is against our custom, It is an abomination for a man to take his own life. It is an offense against the Earth, and a man who commits it will not be buried by his clansmen. His body is evil, and only strangers may touch it” (Achebe 147).
As this passage illustrates, Igbo tradition dictates that whoever commits suicide will not have the right to an honourable funeral. The irony is that Okonkwo’s lifelong endeavour to avoid becoming his father, who was considered an ‘effeminate’ man, is cut short by this tragic outcome, but in this way he retains his dignity and pride by choosing death instead of kneeling to the colonizers and their new ideals thus giving a feeling of katharsis to the reader.
In conclusion, we can see how Achebe perfectly portrays Okonkwo as a tragic Aristotelian hero. Due to him fulfils the requirements written by Aristotle. Okonkwo was a man who despite having suffered his rise and fall, he always had his ideals rooted in his guts until everything fell apart for him.