Chinua Achebes Things Fall Apart is a bestseller novel written from a traditional African perspective in which the westerners are perceived as intruders while Africans are insiders. The book provides an intriguing manifestation of culture clash between the Igbo community which is a clan found in lower Nigeria and the whites who invade the community with an intention of civilizing them. The natives who are conservatives such as Okonkwo believe that their traditional ways are perfect and do not need further changes in critical aspects such as religion. However, the westerners view the people of Umuofia as backward and uncivilized. A clash of cultures following the determination of the whites to colonize and spread their religious practices thus erupts causing a disruption of the social, economic and political systems in the otherwise well-ordered community. Achebe succeeds in using symbolism such as fish, yam, and fire to demystify the character and personality of Okonkwo who is the protagonist in the novel.
Despite the fact that Achebe uses symbolism such as fire, yams, and fish to portray Okonkwo as a brave man, a dramatic failure at the hands of the whites and inability to protect the family as a man betrays his personality. It is expected that Okonkwo would use his bravery to keep his family safe, but instead, he suppresses any affection for his family members. Okonkwos condescending attitude destroys any possible relationship with his son. It also allows him to kill his adopted son (Achebe 73). Again, even though Okonkwo earned himself the title of Roaring Flame, and being as slippery as a fish, his idea of manliness is not the same as that of his clan. For instance, it is misguided for him to see himself as being invincible yet he associated being a man with some adverse disposition such as aggression and anger which actually demeans the expected stature of a true man (Achebe 58). The fact that he frequently beats the wives and even threatens to kill them makes him look a weak man since a bold man needs to rise up to protect the family instead of being the source of that danger. His rash and impetuous actions result in his arrest and eventual decision to commit suicide. Even men who are not effeminate such as Obiereka are more reasonable that Okonkwo (Achebe 48). For instance, Obiereka declines to accompany the men who set out to kill Ikemefuna but Okonkwo volunteers both to join them and violently stabs the surrogate son to death just because he does not want to appear weak (Achebe 61).
In Things Fall Apart, Okonkwo is referred to as fire. Most of his actions and decisions show those of a brave man who does not cower even when confronted with an imminent danger. In fact, he refers to himself as a roaring flame. In the novel, Okonkwo was popularly called the Roaring Flame. As he looked into the log fire he recalled the name. He was the flaming fire. (Achebe 153). Throughout the scenes of the novel, Okonkwo stands out as a bold man who does not take pride in the weaknesses of his father, Unoka. In fact, he dissents the weaknesses and fear of his father who had not fought any battles in his time (Achebe 13. Okonkwo frames his character as a contrast from his father sets his personality around masculinity, life, and boundless potency. These attributes are likened to fire that can raze down even the biggest buildings and turn objects into harsh.
It is the boldness of Okonkwo that later culminated into his dramatic failure from the confrontation between him and the unrelenting white men. Whereas most of the community members seem to have succumbed to the aggression of the invaders, Okonkwo singlehandedly vowed to fight and preserve the dignity of the Umuofians. Really, Okonkwo is like fire but the whites are more powerful hence overcome him. In his life, he only expresses emotion, anger, and force. Fire is incredibly powerful, so is Okonkwo. He threatens people and even kills some. In one instance, he threatens and nearly shoots his second wife, yells at his children and faces a fierce fight with the village worrier, Amalinze. In his struggles to show masculinity, Okonkwo kills the son of a village elder and his adopted son. Towards the end of the novel, he kills a white man, a fact that leads to his dramatic arrest, detention and eventually commits suicide. These decisions and actions of Okonkwo are typical of the destructiveness of fire.
Okonkwo in Things Fall Apart is also described as being as slippery as a fish which means that it was difficult for someone to pin him down or defeat him in a fight. At only eighteen years, Okonkwo had managed to beat Amalinze the Cat. Amalinze had earned his fame from being the greatest wrestler in the village who had remained unbeaten for seven years. However, he would later be beaten by Okonkwo in a fierce fight that would make the young man be popular in the neighboring villages (Achebe 3). Amalinze could not land is described as a wily craftsman but Okonkwo is portrayed as a slippery as fish. Okonkwo had great wrestling skills and even bigger men could not defeat him. Being the darling of the village, and having the urge to liberate his people from the white intrusion. Just like he had defeated Amalinze, he set out to fight and reclaim the dwindling glory of Umuofia, his village. The clash between Okonkwo and the foreigners in Umuofia can be seen as a replay of his wrestle with Amalinze. With the guns, a strong army and influence, it was clear that the whites would obviously defeat Okonkwo, but he unrelentingly faces them. Okonkwos body is well built with muscles standing out on his arms, back, and thighs. In the book, Every nerve and every muscle stood out on their arms, on their backs and thighs, and one almost heard them stretching to breaking point (Achebe 1). Okonkwo fears that if he does not use his prowess to stop the white men from entrenching their culture in Umuofia, they would become so powerful and undermine his great respect from the villagers.
Yams in Things Fall Apart are also critical indicators of Okonkwos personality. He greatly values wealth in a traditional context. In the traditional Igbo society, yams are important crops that are only grown by men and a measure of not only their masculinity but also wealth. In order to consolidate his respect as the warrior in the greater Umuofia clan and the neighboring clans, Okonkwo plants a lot of yams and gets a good harvest. According to him, the more yams he had, and the more respected he would become. People would also respect him for having high harvests of yams. Nonetheless, the coming of the white men into Umuofia disrupts this traditional concept of wealth and Okonkwo finds himself within intricate controversies culminating in his loss of wealth, influence and eventual death.
Through the use of various symbolisms such as yams, fire, and fish, Chinua provides a nuanced impression of Okonkwo as a brave man in the then Igbo community. He is a man committed to avoiding the laziness and cowardice of his father, Unoka. Through every situation and circumstance, Okonkwo labors to show his masculinity, fierceness, and conservativeness. He cannot stand the sight of intruders who threaten his popularity in the village as well as the customs and tradition with which his community has lived for decades. Nonetheless, in most instances, Okonkwos nativity and insecurity betray Achebes depictions. For instance, he beats his wives at the slightest opportunity and does not allow them any freedoms to make choices. In fact, his some even embraces Christianity but does not want his father to know it for the fear of his wrath. Ideally, a brave man should protect the family instead of meting out anger and brute on them. He also fights Amalinze which earns him the title of a Roaring Flame, respect from Umuofians and beyond. However, his insistence on resisting the influence of the white man from entering the community makes him appear weak. Achebe uses symbolism such as fire, yams, and fish to portray Okonkwo as a brave man but his dramatic failure at the hands of the whites and inability to protect his family man betrays the personality.
Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. London: Heinemann, 1977. Print.
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