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Things Fall Apart Essays

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In the novel, Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, structured gender roles are depicted as a fundamental part of Igbo life. All life in the culture is gender specific from who can tend to which crops, to how punishments are dealt out. The novel’s protagonist, Okonkwo, primarily focuses on exaggerating male stereotypical behavior and devaluing anything that is feminine. The novel brings to the surface the balance that lies between masculinity and femininity. African Literature researchers such as Kwadwo Osei-Nyame, Christopher Anyokwu, and Biodun Jeyifo analyze just how the strained relationship between age-old traditions and gender play out in the Igbo culture.

While the reader is given some insight into who Okonkwo’s father is and how much he resents his father. It is noted that his mother is only briefly mentioned once throughout the whole novel, the lack of mention is significant in understanding his misogynistic character. The assumed lack of nurture is consistent with the relationship he [Okonkwo] has with his father and later his son Nwoye. In Jeyifo’s article Okonkwo and His Mother: Things Fall Apart and Issues of Gender in the Constitution of African Postcolonial Discourse, the author argues that the under-textualization of his mother led to his extensive issues of overcompensating “…[T]he single mention of Okonkwo’s mother is extraordinarily suggestive for reading Okonkwo’s particular brand of misogyny and neurotic masculinist personality and for analyzing larger questions of the author’s construction of male subjectivity and identity in the novel” (848). Growing up as the child of a man who was deemed no good by their village, Okonkwo reinvented himself to be the opposite of who his father was. Jefiyo believes that Okonkwo deliberately writes his mother off as a fundamental piece in the formation of his development as a person. He represses the memory of his mother and her stories, as well as the hold it has on his spirits. While asleep Okonkwo is bitten by a mosquito, the mosquito bites seemed to remind him of a story his mother once told. It is important to note that once he recalls the story of the mosquito and the ear he succumbs to his sleepiness. “Okonkwo’s mother is assimilated into the neutral, abstract function of ‘mothers’ in general. For him [Okonkwo], his mother’s stories and their significations evaporate into the generalized phallogocentric rubric of the “silliness” of motherlode” (Jefiyo 849). The most interesting detail coming from the story is the reversal in the structure between the female and male personas. Since this story belongs to the genre of folklore, it makes it clear why the rejection of Mosquito converts such a deep fear of female power as the downfall of male vigor and life force. The thought of a dominant female brings forth fear because they have been given the impression that the female is inferior to the male. Kwadwo Osei-Nyame argues that due to the nature of society, in no way does Okonkwo’s behavior have anything to do with his mother, but everything to do with the way those around him were conditioned.

The issue of gender roles in the story can be explained by the direct relationship of man and the Igbo culture. “Masculine traditions operate as forms of consciousness that act foremostly to legitimize specific ideals and values and to distribute and restrict authority within Umofia, one of the most powerful of Igbo communities” (150). As one of the strongest Igbo villages, Umofia is a society where all celebrated figures of male. The fragility of the male ego is the sole purpose in why this specific clan falls apart towards the end of the novel. Much of this clan’s pride is embedded in Okonkwo and his representation of the masculine ideology. Due to the clan’s negative views of his father, Okonkwo became obsessed with championing his masculinity. As he aged, he began to use his masculinity as a defensive resource and it began to overtake his world. “By constructing his identity and embedding his actions in a perverse sense in rebelliousness against everything that his father Unoka represents, Okonkwo apprehends his world pessimistically” (151). To steer clear of being branded as an agbada, the Igbo word referring to weak and lazy men, Okonkwo would assert his masculinity whenever he deemed it fit. Umofia and its inhabitants acknowledge all of Okonkwo’s feats would often align to the marginalization of their women. “[T]he selective tradition of a dominant culture when we trace the modes by which Okonkwo’s adherence to certain values and ideals and Umuofia’s validations of these values converge to generate the masculine nationalist tradition represented by Things Fall Apart” (152). It is fair to claim that the origin and nature of the culture established a selective tradition in which does who exude masculinity are superior. The perception of the issues surrounding gender has triggered tensions between the sexes in society.

Gender stereotyping leaves females in a perilous position, the stringent gender differentiation encourages the repression of the female sex. “And what makes one person “male” and the other ‘female’?” (Anyokwu 17). What truly draws the line of gender identification, biology or cultural definition? If a biologically defined female holds the supposed values of manliness that is decided by the patriarchy, do they qualify to be called a male? In defining gender, there are many blanks where the decision is based purely on one’s interpretation. Along the way, the term male began to imply masculinity and female began to imply pacifism. Okonkwo embodies the Igbo nation’s ideology of masculinity, the ideal alpha male. “Stretched logically, Okonkwo’s multiple selves/personalities comprehend and subsume other less-iconic figures such as his confidant-friend, Obierika. This is more so because Okonkwo is portrayed as almost entirely ‘male’” (Anyokwu 19). To be considered a male in the eyes of Igbo tradition you must possess the drive to conquer any impediments. Any suspected violation of the unspoken standards of the fragile, social structure would lead to never-ending gender misclassification. In the Igbo culture gendering of inanimate objects such as harvest and crops further pushed the narrative of males being superior. The yams have become embedded into the age-old narrative. In the novel Things Fall Apart Achebe states that, “…[The] [y]am stood for manliness, and he who could feed his family on yams from one harvest to another was a very great man indeed” (24). Cultivating the yam gave precedence to the open demonstration of strength. Only with a certain amount of physical strength can a man harness the resources needed to harvest yams successfully. Okonkwo’s hyper-masculinity and overwhelming strength was his greatest weakness. His refusal to think rationally instead of with his emotions leads to his people betraying him. Subjectively, characters like Okonkwo can be feminized if given more exposure to feminine desires. Essentially to gain and or maintain social relevancy one must be physically fit and in tune with their selves, these characteristics are proven to be gender-neutral.

In the novel, gender is a prominent theme and much of the novel focuses on the unstable balance between feminine and masculine forces. Igbo traditions focused on masculinity and all that can be achieved with a masculine nature. African Literature researchers analyzed the intricate balance that lies in between femininity and masculinity. The distinction between what makes a man and what makes a woman is discussed in detail. Through the readings, a greater knowledge of the Igbo culture and why gender is crucial is acquired.

Works Cited

  1. Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1958.
  2. Anyokwu, Christopher. “Re-Imagining Gender in Chinua Achebe’s ‘Things Fall Apart.’” Interdisciplinary Literary Studies, vol. 12, no. 2, 2011, pp. 16–31. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/41210316
  3. 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, www.jstor.org/stable/2932213.
  4. 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, www.jstor.org/stable/3820564.
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