A Venture Into African Life and Masculinity in Things Fall Apart, a Novel by Chinua Achebe

Few authors venture to capture African life as Africans lived it. Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart came to prominence if only for that. However, his work found critical acclaim for doing much more than that. Beyond the normal reduction of Africa as some battlefield for European affairs, as even history has treated the continent, Achebe utilizes the cyclical nature of life and death in order to craft a narrative with both cyclical and linear aspects. Within this theme, life carries on, death arrives continually, and the repetition regulates a society like the heart to the cardiovascular system. Both aspects contradict each other in theory, but the tension between them carries the plot forth.

Achebe, in muddying the dichotomies of European and African nature and culture, seeks to undo not only the narrative of pre-colonial Africa as a land of savages, but also any narrative of that Africa as a utopia. For Achebe and largely for our criticism today, Africa is just as prone to dissonance, conflict, and violence as any other land. But Africa also had prosperity, opulence, and dignity. He goes through great lengths for the former, showing how organized and customed they were, such as the calming rituals done too promote a sense of sameness between two conflicting parties. Africa was a chaotic mix of paradoxes, such as the ones presented in the Umuofia village. Okonkwo’s violence exceeds the calm nature of the village, which prioritized calm thought before action. Okonkwo’s own hypermasculinity here created a divide between him and the rest of the world, in addition to the vicious divide between himself and most – if not all – of his family.

Cycles need an anchor or center in order for us to identify them and their patterns. In the case of Umuofia and larger Igbo society, the patriarchy acted as this center around which the cycles of life and death perpetuated themselves. Their society, with an obviously patriarchal nature, promoted female subjugation. As typical as patriarchal societies are throughout history, Okonkwo stands out as an example of hypermasculinity, something which cannot be blamed fully upon the sometimes abusive underbelly of male-female dynamics in their culture.

Something deeper in Okonkwo led him to view the abolition of all femininity in men as the ultimate sign of success and self-justification. While pre-post-structural society already lacked a real sense of gradation between gender/power binaries, Okonkwo tried with much greater effort to prevent any such grey areas in his own boys, mainly Nwoye, who he probably sees as the version of himself that could have been if not for his own hypermasculinity. Nwoye’s sense of masculinity was much different than that of his father, but that was starting to change while in the presence of Ikemefuna, who slowly taught him that masculinity comes in more shapes than just that of Okonkwo’s, which is by far the harshest and least palatable to Nwoye.

Okonkwo, while probably not as assured as he would be if Nwoye followed in his own steps, was more than happy to allow this influence of Ikemefuna to act as a glue between himself and his son. In the end, all that mattered was preventing Nwoye from ending up like Unoka. But Okonkwo prevented such an outcome due to his own need for masculinity. He allowed his own ego to prevail and slayed Ikemefuna so that he might not appear too weak to have done so. I would estimate that Okonkwo secretly enjoyed killing his adoptive son. Doing so allowed him and Nwoye to return to their more harsh struggle, with the chance that Nwoye would become just as masculine as he was, without the softening presented by Ikemefuna.

In addition, the Freudian practice of the patriarch who presents the harsh realities of life to his son seems well in order with Okonkwo. Introducing the son into the masculine order requires the initiand to have his relationship with the mother completely severed. Being unable to do so on his own could have been seen as a failure. Why would a real man need the help of a younger man to initiate his son into manhood? Okonkwo himself professed that to be a true man, one must be able to “rule his women and his children” (Achebe 53). It is also likely that Okonkwo felt the need to kill Ikemefuna in order to sever his own bonds with him, another male. Doing so would only further spurn his masculinity and make him more right in his eyes. Nwoye, seeing how supposed real masculinity manifests itself, decided to wholly disengage from it. Rather, he was forever cut off from it through his own trauma.

Furthermore, quite possible is that Okonkwo enjoyed having the feebler Nwoye around. Hypermasculinity needs a subject upon which to act. It cannot exist in a vacuum. As shown after the arrival and proliferation of the white church and its converts, a well-established hierarchy requires the bottom and least-privileged layer to be the largest grouping. Superiority is nothing without inferiority. With this, perhaps Okonkwo thrived in accentuating his own manhood while abusing his own son. He could have seen himself in Nwoye. Perhaps seeing Nwoye as his own father, Unoka, allowed him to redo his own childhood by trying to toughen them both up. If Unoka had been tougher on him, perhaps Okonkwo would have much more notoriety by that point. Perhaps Unoka’s grandson would have ended up more masculine.

Overcompensation is always a distinct possibility when it comes to hypermasculine types. Does Okonkwo blame himself for the problems involved in his ogbanje? The innuendo of his misfiring rifle comes to mind especially, with the obvious representation of his phallus. It hearkens to the idea of Onan, who “misfired” so to speak, by spilling his seed on the ground. For it, Onan was slain by God. In Okonkwo’s case, he was merely exiled for seven years. Okonkwo’s hypermasculinity affects his connection with his family in all sorts of destructive ways. I find him comparable in many ways to James Evans, the patriarch of the television program, Good Times.

James was always angry and the first to reach for a belt for a whipping, so much so that many people were fine with it when his character died in a car accident. In fact, many more comparisons could be made between Okonkwo and contemporary black stereotypes of hypermasculinity. What comes to mind most is the rampant “be a man” culture, wherein young boys are taught that feeling, crying, or caring is a sign of weakness. The same goes for phrases like “man up”, which can negatively affect young men, as well as those in contact with them. When used to convey gender stereotypes, such phrases convey a standard that robs men and continues the cycle of an unfeeling, uncaring patriarchy.

In my estimation, Okonkwo is much more fitting with modern ideas of black males, those affected by systems which may inevitably bring them to believe that they will be crushed if selfcontrol and masculinity are not brought to the forefront of their lives. While I know that tempestuous men are in every society, colonial, or pre-, or post-colonial, Okonkwo seems to me to be a man in the incorrect time period. His characteristics draw far too similarities with male minorities in a post-colonial society. Such misplacement, I believe, lends to the cyclical nature of Things Fall Apart. Like an ouroboros or a dog chasing its own tail, the patriarchy is perpetuated by those trapped within the cycle. Like a whirlpool, it brings in others to its cause. Some like Okonkwo are especially affected by it to the point where their own humanity becomes a mere skin to constantly cast off. This makes him his own villain because of his tragic flaw, his need to be callous.

Okonkwo wrestles with his own feelings throughout the work, especially evidenced with his relationships with Ikemefuna and Ezinma. Ezinma’s position as his favorite daughter and favorite overall child prods at the tragic flaw of Okonkwo, his need to be callous. It rears its head whenever he wishes she were a male, for she already has traits he considers masculine, that being her headstrong and charismatic nature. To him, she acts more like a son than Nwoye. This should tell him that femininity is not always wrong, but he does not overcome his flaw in time to realize it. Did he overcome his flaw at all? I believe his eventual suicide is a sign of his success in conquering his flaw, but only at the expense of his life.

Suicide, an unmanly act which brings shame and curses to those around him, is so effeminate of an act for him. It would be the ultimate loss of one’s phallus. That analysis could be too haphazard, however, for it is also possible that his male aspirations merely devoured him. When he could not meet his standards or achieve his goals, was he alive at all? Was he already dead to himself at that point? If so, was his suicide even an act of cowardice, or was it his first act of self-affirmation? If the latter is the case, Okonkwo’s similarities to the ogbanje develop into a form of constant self-destruction.

In conclusion, Things Fall Apart presents itself not as a redemption story for Africa, for Achebe does not feel that it needs one. If anything, it is Europe that needs the redemption for the atrocities presented in other post-colonial works set in Africa. Achebe merely takes the mantle of presenting Africa as Africa was and somewhat still is, for the narratives of both among outsiders are still largely the same; they still pertain to savages and ignorant tribalism. In this way, the nature of Things Fall Apart is cyclical despite being presented in a very linear fashion, a quality not easy to create. We all know what happens in the end, with European contact. That story will end or be changed forever by European influence. And yet, the story and the cycle will repeat. Cycles and death are apparent within this work, as they are in our own patriarchal society. Though set in Africa and likely some time in the late 1800s or early 1900s, Okonkwo’s masculine struggles still ring clear in contemporary society, perhaps because the cycle keeps repeating despite the death, destruction, and synthesis which follow its arc.

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