This essay constitutes an examination of the psychology of Okonkwo, who is the main hero in Chinua Achebe’s acclaimed novel, Things Fall Apart. The essay details how Okonkwo struggles to free himself from the negative social image of his father by abandoning his true self and pretending to be the exact opposite of his father. What Okonkwo does and says in the story is not true of who he is, as the essay argues, but an imposed personality curved specifically to contradict that of his late father.
The complex character of Okonkwo is indicative of a doomed search for personal identity and of a man whose inner cowardice is reflected by an outward show of might. While being amiable in all aspects, Okonkwo’s character is self-destructive. The paper argues that as Okonkwo struggles to establish an ideal image of a ‘man’, he loses the support of his significant others beginning with the wives and then the children. To make matters worse, the social context in, by and for which he had molded his ideal character also begins to change as white men arrive in the village and begin a transforming revolution.
Using this as the basis of the unfolding argument, the paper argues that Okonkwo’s center of power collapses from within not only because his personality is superficially erected but also because all pillars that could have otherwise supported (i.e. the family and the society), have also collapsed encourse the development of the plot. Okonkwo reflects the dilemma of a changing traditional society under the verge of colonization and the disintegration of a people’s social and cultural ideology. This is symbolized impeccably well, even to a genius wit, by Achebe, in the psychological traits of Okonkwo’s character. For instance, as the paper argues, Okonkwo’s strong character ultimately falls apart because it is centered on a failing social ideology and a disintegrating collective identity.
An examination of the psychology of Okonkwo, the hero in Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, reveals that the complex character of Okonkwo is indicative of a man’s search for personal identity in a changing social context and of a man whose inner cowardice is reflected by an outward show of might. It is not contested in this essay that Okonkwo had a strong personality, but the qualified argument herein is that his strong but self-destructive character ultimately falls apart because it is centered on a failing social ideology and a disintegrating collective identity.
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe (Psychological Analysis of Okonkwo)
This short essay examines the psychology of Okonkwo, the hero of Things Fall Apart. While not being a summary or appraisal of the work, the essay strives to critique the character in context of the plot, the themes and other characters in the book, with the objective of identifying the psychological precipitation, evolution, reaction and ultimate disintegration of Okonkwo. To show this, the paper first introduces the book and its thematic concerns. This introduction gives rise to a description of the plot and a brief mention of the other characters in Things Fall Apart.
The third section of the paper is dedicated to Okonkwo, analyzing the things he does and the things he says in the story. This analysis reveals some very indicative concepts to the psychology of his complex character. Each of these concepts, better referred to as elements of Okonkwo’s character, are importantly qualified on the basis of the plot, themes and other characters as already introduced in the second section of the essay. Ultimately, the paper draws a tenable conclusion on the thesis argument in a brief and precise manner.
Things Fall Apart
Things Fall Apart is Chinua Achebe's most brilliant novel portraying the impact of the onset of colonialism on a remote traditional Nigerian village, Umuofia, at the close of the 19th Century (Levine, 1999). The novel’s hero is Obi Okonkwo. He epitomizes a hybrid of the society’s nobility and a characteristic rigidity of his society’s traditional culture. Achebe (a Nigerian novelist) designed the plot of a tragic novel based on the age at which the pre-colonial Igbo community gave way to colonialism. Since publication in 1958, the classic novel has been acclaimed as a major literary masterpiece with an African descent. The book combines a nationalist assertion of Achebe and a critique of the emerging modern African culture (Levine, 1999).
After fifty years of literary acclaim, the unforgettable novel is available globally in over fifty languages and has been read by more Africans and non-Africans alike than any other African novel (having sold over 8 million copies to date). A staple literature book in African schools and English-speaking nations globally, Achebe’s novel is an archetypal of modern African novels, the first to receive a global audience. He derived the title from a poem by William Butler Yeats, The Second Coming (Levine, 1999).
What Achebe captures in Umuofia is a vivid, stunning moment when the Igbo, just as the African continent at large, saw Britain take reigns of a an independent people, jarringly crash their way of life and forcefully introduce a ‘super culture’ that could not co-exist with the traditional customs. Notably, and very relevant to this paper’s thesis, is that Achebe begins the story in a pre-colonial era through re-creating the tribal life Umuofia, and then gradually introduces the arrival of Britons and with them colonial masters and Christianity. This helps Achebe to create the parable of a colonial experience from an African perspective, as the social changes gradually collapse a formerly harmonious society by first ruining the Africans from inside (like it did to Okonkwo) and then collapsing the entire society’s way of life from the outside.
The horror of that transition is captured well in Okonkwo’s experience, a strong Igbo hero and ‘man’ who struggles very hard to maintain his cultural integrity as well as that of his people, but fails to win over the overwhelming colonial power. Ultimately, the fall the proceeded the internal and external collapse of Okonkwo leads him to be banished from the very community he had tried to protect, after accidentally killing a fellow clansman. The seven years he is banished to exile erupts encourse the plot, and by the time he returns, he witness an absolute disintegration of his home, his village and his traditions under the mighty European culture. It is noteworthy that Okonkwo who had pleaded with his people to hold on to their culture, is the one who begins to fall before his society collapses (Levine, 1999). Arguably, that society could never have collapsed had the people within it (such as Okonkwo) not collapsed themselves (Levine, 1999).
The Search for Self Identity
Besidesbeing a recount of the self-abasement instilled on Africans by the traumatic and largely suppressive historical encounter with Europe, this novel is itself a literary neutral story that can apply equally to any society on the verge of change. The same impact is felt in developed nations today, such as under the impeding dominance of information technology. The introduction of change, its effects, its domination and ultimate conquest is a central theme of Achebe’s book and no other character depicts the same better than Okonkwo. Okonkwo’s character is typical of every human being in opposing change and how such opposition leads to ultimate destruction when all pillars of support crumbles under the weight of change (Levine, 1999).
When change come by, those who oppose change, the Okonkwo’s, head towards tragedy while those who accept it like his eldest son Nwoye, survive the change and adapt to the new social paradigm. Nwoye is hated by Okonkwo for being ‘weak’ and even ‘lazy’, such that the poor son receives continuous from his father. Okonkwo hopes that by beating his son, he could correct the flaws he sees in his personality. But the ability to transform to new demands is what helps Nwoye to survive the times. He is influenced by the more ‘manly’ Ikemefuna, an adopted brother, to exhibit a masculine behavior that eventually pleases Okonkwo.
However, in the course of the story, he gains doubts about the rules and laws practiced in the village. When a better and seemingly more apt belief systems arrives (Christianity) he quickly converts and becomes an enthusiast. This is important to the paper’s thesis since, Ikemefuna and Okonkwo are stronger and more astute in character yet they both perish in doom (Levine, 1999). They refuse to adapt to changing times, notably Okonkwo, and consequently perish under the merciless whip of change (Levine, 1999). Yet Nwoye survives despite having been disowned by Okonkwo. Okonkwo had called Nwoye an “effeminate” and even characterized him as having the affliction of weaknesses that Unoka, Okonkwo’s late father, had (Chinua, 2008).
What this means is that during a moment of change, people struggle to find identity. Some adapt to new contexts and acquire new identities as fast as the changes emerge. Nwoye is in this group. Ironically, this group survives since their inner self always rhymes with that of their surroundings. The second group of people is those who refuse to change and hold tight to the past. Eventually, the change sweeps away all their individual and collective support until they collapse and persist. Okonkwo is an impersonation of this group. Arguably therefore, it is deductively correct to conclude Okonkwo’s complex character is indicative of a man’s search for personal identity in a changing social context. Despite having a strong personality, his strong but self-destructive character ultimately falls apart because it is centered on a failing social ideology and a disintegrating collective identity (Levine, 1999).
It is also important to note that Okonkwo’s character is born out of anger and hate towards his late father, for achieving nothing in his lifetime. What his father was dictates what Okonkwo is not, a very indicative pointer to Okonkwo’s search for self-identity. His identity is lost in striving to be an exact opposite of what Unoka, his father, was. Just because his father was fun loving and kind for instance, Okonkwo believes in sullenness, hard working and manliness to a fault. Clearly therefore he is not himself but an opposite of his father.
Self Denial and Internal Conflict
The one point in which then fate of Okonkwo becomes apparent even at the beginning of the novel is when he accepts the clansmen’s decision to sacrifice Ikemefuna, a boy he truly loved and adored. He is actually the one who takes the delightful boy out to the jungle and kills him just because he feared appearing weak to other tribesmen. His self-destructive character shows in this incidence and helps show how he lacks a personal identity besides that of his society.
Yet instead of accepting his error, instead of being himself, he is angry for loving his son, angry with himself because of feeling sorry for murdering a son he loved. In chapter eight he says, “When did you become a shivering old woman,' Okonkwo asked himself, 'you, who are known in all the nine villages for your valor in war? How can a man who has killed five men in battle fall to pieces because he has added a boy to their number? Okonkwo, you have become a woman indeed.” This man had completely lost himself and his identity, evidently.
To the very end, the inability to accept change and to be who he is naturally; is what causes his tragic death. Achebe also creates another character with the same psychology. Ezinmawho is Okonkwo’s most loved daughter is as bold as his father. She is actually the only one who dares to openly contradict her father. Okonkwo loves the girl so much that he even remarks severally that he wished that the gilr had been born a boy. This is not because she is good than his other sons, but because she had a masculine spirit. Ezinma solely captivates Okonkwo’s absolute attention, respect and affection. Typical of her father, she also displays an ability to act based on a self-denial mentality and not her emotions when though beautiful and young she puts off her marriage until her the family returns to Umuofia from exile, at least to give her father a leverage in his sociopolitical power (Chinua, 2008).
Okonkwo’s self-denial builds up into an internal conflict. By internal conflict, we refer to a struggle occurring within a character. Okonkwo feels great love for Ezinma, and for Ikemefuna, his adopted son. He refuses to show it however, since the only emotion that a man should show is anger. He hides his intimate affection for the children. It is not that Okonkwo has no feelings. Rather, the narrator says that that he expresses his feelings “inwardly” for fear of being seen. His tender, fondness and love for Ikemefuna show when he struggles so hand to kill him. He also follows Ezinma while in the forest from afar off distance, as any tender and worried father would do. Yet instead of being true with his feelings, he puts on a very indifferent exterior.
Comparatively, Nwoye does not believe in his father’s ideals of showing anger alone. He even tries for some time to earn Okonkwo’s approval and love by complaining against women, which makes his father to smile. However, Nwoye cannot pretend and deny his self and he eventually converts to Christianity. Essentially therefore, self-denial and consequent internal conflicts lead to tragedy while acceptance of the self and liberty, leads to prosperity and survival, in this novel.
The Tragic Hero
Okonkwo is a classical tragic hero who despite great social and economic success as well as a superior character has a tragic flaw in equating manliness with anger, rashness, violence and a total self-denial. Okonkwo losses the internal self-identity and conceptualizes a fictional character defined by the society he lives in. He is a village leader, a former wrestling champion, a reputed farmer, a hard worker, a husband of three wives, a father to numerous children and man who never smiles. The ideology of living according to and for the society is captured by Okonkwo’s words in chapter seven, "No matter how prosperous a man was, if he was unable to rule his women and his children (and especially his women) he was not really a man" (Chinua, 2008).
All these traits are superficial and nothing is from within. Okonkwo has no part of his own in his life. His self is completely consumed by the social expectations and esteem. His centers of power lie in the traditions, the practices, the rituals, the beliefs of the Umofian society. His beloved image of being rich, headstrong, respected elder and hard working man are all exterior traits that are artificially created to contradict his lazy father. In his value of socially ascribed manliness, Okonkwo rejects everything that he believes Unoka, his father, had stood for. Unlike Unoka, Okonkwo could never stay idle, profligate, poor, cowardly, interested in music, good in conversation or gentle. Okonkwo builds an ideal personality of productivity, wealth, thriftiness, bravery, violence and adamant in opposing music or anything else that was “soft,” or emotional.
As Achebe says of Okonkwo in the third chapter, "A proud heart can survive general failure because such a failure does not prick its pride. It is more difficult and more bitter when a man fails alone" (Chinua, 2008). Okonkwo become stoic to a fault, something that ends up destroying him. Achebe writes in Chapter four of his book, "But he was not the man to go about telling his neighbors that he was in error. Therefore, people said he had no respect for the gods of the clan. His enemies said that his good fortune had gone to his head" (Chinua, 2008).
Therefore, when the very society and ideology upon which he had molded his character collapses, he too must collapse because his character is empty from the inside. As Achebe writes in chapter seventeen, "Living fire begets cold, impotent ash" (Chinua, 2008). By being that fictious character, Okonkwo denies himself the opportunity to be a good father, a good husband and a happy man. He loves his land, his people and his traditions that he loves himself of his family. Yet, the very society he had sacrificed everything for ends up sending him to exile after killing a man accidentally. That is how easy the pretension and the external self-esteem collapse, leaving him empty and destitute.
This essay has examined the psychology of Okonkwo, who is the main hero in Chinua Achebe’s acclaimed novel, Things Fall Apart. The essay details how Okonkwo struggles to free himself from the negative social image of his father by abandoning his true self and pretending to be the exact opposite of his father. The paper has argued that Okonkwo does and says in the story is not true of who he is, as the essay argues, but an imposed personality curved specifically to contradict that of his late father and to build a social image of excellence.
Okonkwo character indicates a man in a doomed search for personal identity, an identity he never finds due to self-denial. His inner fears are reflected by an outward show of manliness. The inability to establish a personal identity separate for a social estimation is the tragic character in Okonkwo and what leads him to a tragic end. The paper argues that as Okonkwo struggles to establish an ideal image of a ‘man’, he loses the support of his significant others beginning with the wives and then the children. To make matters worse, the social context in, by and for which he had molded his ideal character also begins to change as white men arrive in the village and begin a transforming revolution.
The essay has argued that Okonkwo’s center of power collapses from within not only because his personality is superficially erected but also because all pillars that could have otherwise supported (i.e. the family and the society), have also collapsed. As such, Okonkwo’s ‘superior’ character ultimately falls apart because it is centered on a failing social ideology and a disintegrating collective identity.