Crises Of Self Image In Things Fall Apart: The Reasons For Okonkwo’s Actions

989 words - 4 pages

Despite his love for the culture in which he was born, Okonkwo, an esteemed member and warrior of the Ibo peoples of Africa, has a difficult time complying with the traditions of his tribe. Although he respects the tribe’s customs and the decisions of the elders, Okonkwo often makes rash decisions that bring him and his family unnecessary troubles. He strives to gain the tribe’s respect, as well as to compensate for his father’s “failed” life by portraying himself as the perfect man and warrior; however, his efforts toward honor seem to always end in dishonor. In a way, the reasons for his behavior come from deep within Okonkwo himself, not the culture of which he is a part. Compensation for character flaws turns in overcompensation, which places him out of touch with his community. In short, his sense of, and obsession for, self-image acts as a catalyst for his actions throughout the book.
There are multiple examples of Okonkwo’s lack of adherence to Umuofian customs, i.e., beating his wife, Ojiugo, during the Week of Peace (28-31); beating his wives and children for the most minuscule of reasons; and speaking out whenever he should remain silent. However, the one custom that he breaks that causes the most hardship for himself and, it can be argued, his family, is the killing of his adopted son, Ikemefuna. Although the murder is prescribed by the Oracle of the Hills and Caves and is condoned by the village elders, neither the Oracle nor the other men of the village expect Okonkwo to partake in the killing; in fact, Ogbuefi Ezeudu, a well-respected warrior and elder of the tribe, suggests that Okonkwo remain behind when the other warriors lead Ikemefuna to slaughter. “. . . Umuofia has decided to kill him,” Ezeudu says, “but I want you to have nothing to do with it” (57). Nevertheless, Okonkwo insists on going, and when the hour of Ikemefuna’s death comes, he not only watches, he “[draws] his machete and cuts [Ikemefuna] down” (61), rather than risk being thought of as weak, which is a reoccurring theme in Things Fall Apart, as well as the reason behind most of Okonkwo’s vices.
The reader sees Okonkwo’s obsession with image from the beginning. He fears being compared to his father, Unoka, who, while he lived, was thought of as “lazy,” “improvident,” and “quite incapable of thinking about tomorrow” (4)—all qualities that Umuofian men are not encouraged to have. Okonkwo despises his father, and does everything in his power to keep from being compared to him. He knows that in Umuofian culture “a man [is] judged according to his worth and not according to the work of his father”—in short, “if a child wash[es] his hands he [can] eat with kings (8); and this acceptance of the son despite his father’s flaws gives Okonkwo hope. He works hard to be thought of as a leader, rather than a...

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