From the outset, Okonkwo, the tragic protagonist of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, comes across as extraordinarily strong, a man who is “well known throughout the nine villages and even beyond” and whose “fame rested on solid personal achievements.” Not only does he stand out in his community, he is also a prototype of the imperial character, a man taken with the singularity of his powers. In an important sense, he foreshadows the British authorities lurking around the corner of late 19th century Umuofia, about to burst upon the lives of a once proud and self-governing people.
Like the British colonial authorities, Okonkwo is in no hurry to argue with any force weaker than himself – or with weakness of any sort, period. When he encounters weakness, especially weakness symbolized in another individual, his first impulse is to kill it, squelch it, erase it. He is a veritable serial killer, armed with various stratagems for killing his nemeses – the weak. When a man named Osugo contradicts him at a meeting, a hectoring Okonkwo reminds the man that “this meeting is for men.” As Achebe informs us, Okonkwo knew “how to kill a man’s spirit.” During the Week of Peace, a period when the earth goddess mandates the absolute absence of rancor, belligerence and violence from the community in exchange for her bequest of a bountiful harvest, an imperious Okonkwo thoughtlessly beats one of his wives.
For me, the one thing that’s even more significant than Okonkwo’s untoward exhibition of rude power is his community’s poise, their possession of the ultimate means to chastise the errant hero, their capacity – in other words – to deal with the threat of a man who appears not to know where his moral boundaries lie. When he defames Osugo, Okonkwo is compelled to apologize. When he breaches the Week of Peace, he scandalizes his community and incurs the wrath of the goddess whose priest makes a brusque, chastening visit to Okonkwo to spell out the fines.
Achebe damningly portrays Okonkwo as a man incapable of thought, a man who reposes too much faith in his physical prowess but puts no store by wisdom. Yet, there are numerous opportunities when the community forces Okonkwo to reckon with the fact that they – to say nothing of their ancestors and gods – are, in the end, more powerful than he. When the strongman foolishly ignores old Ezeudu’s counsel not to have a hand in killing the “doomed lad” called Ikemefuna, it falls to Obierika, Okonkwo’s best friend and an exemplar of the thinking man, to chide the morally repugnant Okonkwo. In a warning that proves prescient, Obierika describes Okonkwo’s participation in the killing of his adoptive son as the kind of act for which “the earth goddess wipes off” an entire family. Okonkwo earns himself a seven-year exile in his maternal home, Mbanta, when his gun discharges accidentally, inadvertently causing the death of a clansman, Ezeudu’s son.
In all of this, the instruction is that the people of Umuofia are able to rein in Okonkwo, a man who has developed a warped and ethically problematic vision of strength as corresponding to virtue. If he could, Okonkwo would gladly have stipulated that he was the only way and the light. He would have insisted that his community’s will be subordinated to his decrees. But Umuofia does not let him. Instead, the community constantly reclaims the ethical ground that Okonkwo wishes to usurp for sheer power.
The culmination of this tussle between the community’s sense of propriety and Okonkwo’s faith in violence arrives towards the end of Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. The men of Umuofia are holding a meeting to decide an appropriate response to the troubling presence of white men who – to paraphrase Obierika – have put a knife to the things that held the community together, gravely threatening Umuofia’s corporate cohesion. The meeting has hardly taken off when the uniformed messengers of the white intruders appear, with instructions to disband the gathering. Okonkwo confronts the haughty messengers, draws his machete and beheads one of them. In responding in this decisive, “manly” way to the provocations of the white presence, Okonkwo hopes to propel his fellows into war. In effect, he wishes to make a demand on the warriors of Umuofia. He wants them to prove themselves to him, to demonstrate that they deserve to be called warriors still. He wants them to illustrate that they have not become effeminate, wilted cowards.
The men of Umuofia stoutly reject Okonkwo’s precipitate action. They resist the summons to go to war on Okonkwo’s terms. They have a time-tested, settled protocol they must follow before declaring a war. They won’t let a failure at “thinking,” a man whose genius lies exclusively in acting out violently, to determine the nature and timing of their response to the foreign invaders, however egregious and gratuitous the “white” provocation. Rather than join Okonkwo in battle, the men of Umuofia wonder aloud about his awful act. They do not admire his decision to act alone when communal action was meet and mandated. It is, of course, a moment of mutual incomprehension. Okonkwo misreads his community’s refusal to embrace his violent act as final proof of Umuofia’s decline, its descent into paralysis. Convinced in his misapprehension, he leaves the scene of his final murder to go off and hang himself, no doubt viewing himself as a man utterly betrayed by his fellows, a man who sees no alternative other than a final act of separation: suicide.
In death, as in life, Okonkwo is a figure of extreme impulsiveness. Left to his devices, he would sooner force his community to bend to his will. If it were up to him, then even the ancestors and gods of Umuofia must redefine themselves according to Okonkwo’s strictures. In present-day Nigeria, a man like him could very well be an imperial president or governor – and proceed to mistake himself for the totality of his community, his interests and values superseding those of the rest of his people. Yet, Achebe’s first novel reveals how the members of the Umuofia community – ancestors, the living, and deities – work in concert to check Okonkwo’s masculinist excesses and to hold him accountable to the community’s ethical precepts.
The question then arises: What has happened to weaken such faculties of ethical enforcement in contemporary Africa, specifically in the space called Nigeria?
The column is excerpted from a lecture I gave at Brown University on April 29, 2013. The second part will be published next week.
Please follow me on twitter @ okeyndibe