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Okonkwo “Falls Apart”: The Tragic Hero Essay

Psychology teaches us that we retain information presented to us in an emotional and compelling manner.  Facts and figures may speak to the mind, but stories speak to the heart—.the heart of individuals and the heart of humanity as a whole.  Why have books and authors endured for centuries, outlasting nearly every other form of entertainment?

Books are the faithful guardians of humanity’s timeless bonds, and in their words and their images resonate core human principles.  For this reason, novels are among humanity’s most powerful history books.  Emotions are, after all, what make us human.  Who better to speak to these unstop- pable forces than tragic dramatists, who capture the universality of human emotions in their timeless “life-in-capsules”:  .their stories.  Classic masters like Sophocles and Shakespeare may have introduced us to the tragic hero, but contemporary storytellers have transcended race, regions, and centuries  to gift modern society with its own tortured messengers.

In Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, the struggle between the late nineteenth century Igbo people of Nigeria and the white colonialists who sought the tribes’ conversion to Christianity are docu- mented.  However, it is the rise and fall of one great Igbo warrior, Okonkwo, that truly drives this modern tragedy…. and demonstrates how a “tragic  hero” is often anything but “heroic.”

Much like Shakespearean tragic hero Macbeth and many others, Okonkwo is a multidimensional blend of light (good) and dark (evil).  The clan leader is admirable in his self-made status (a unique fulfillment of the tragic hero’s usual noble nature) and his determination to create a better future by shunning his father’s questionable actions.

Achebe presents Okonkwo and his tribesmen as a people who value thought and artistry:  “Among the Igbo the art of conversation is regarded very highly, and proverbs are the palm-oil with which words are eaten” (12).   During the era of imperialism and romanticism, many dismissed indigenous Africans as the “noble savage”—beings high in morality but low in intelligence.  Achebe’s tale challenges both of these assumptions.  Achebe peppers his tale with Igbo language and words, to illustrate the vital role which communication played in the Igbo community and culture.  Such a representation is a far cry from the dull-witted and language-less “savage” of popular lore.

Despite these positives, the reader may be left with an uncomfortable feeling—and even an active dislike—of the novel’s protagonist.  He beats his wife (although he is punished for it); he constantly berates his son for not being masculine enough; he wishes his daughter (although he adores her character and strength) was a son; he rarely shows emotion (because he perceives feeling as weakness)—and that very fear leads him to remorselessly participate in the premeditated murder of his favored surrogate son Ikemefuna.

Two of the aforementioned events are particularly crucial in Okonkwo’s path of development, demonstrating the cruel interaction of fate and choice that guides the tragic hero.  During his formative years, Okondwo firmly captains his own destiny by building himself up as a respected and well-regarded warrior and provider, although these actions are fueled by the disrepute of his dishonest father, a background over which Okonkwo has no control.

This secret shame is the first mark of the warrior’s spiritual wounding (parental issues similarly drive other celebrated tragic heroes such as Hamlet and Oedipus).  Spiritual hurt instills Okonkwo with a tragic flaw that damages his decision-making process.  And, as with all tragic heroes, the crossroads (the point of decision) is everything.  When the warrior is faced with a choice regarding how to handle his wife’s presumed negligence, his pride leads him to one brutal conclusion:  a beating.  The action shatters a sacred time for Okonkwo’s tribe, and, more importantly, fractures their trust in an important leader.

As a result, the warrior has only wounded himself more, a fact for which he repents but does not yet truly recognize.Only Okonkwo’s second crossroads will irrevocably alter the story, and the man himself.  After all, how could a man look into the eyes of a child whom he has sheltered, mentored, and admired—a child, with no blood ties, who is still no less a “son” to his “father”—how could such a man look into the past and future and allow his pride to deal that child a fatal blow?

How could a piece of that man—of his soul—not die with his child?  For Okonkwo, the answer is clear, and his tragic recognition of the consequences of this action (his moment of truth) sets the ensuing chain of events on its inevitable—and unavoidable—course.  The warrior has further severed the tenuous connection with his family; more death befalls his family; the “fates” punish him with a tragic accident, which leads to his exile; and he must watch passively as his people are swindled by questionable outsiders.

Yet the repeated emotional pummelings have reawakened within the warrior two important virtues:  honor and courage.  Through his revolution of one (his final choice, his final act of defiance), Okonkwo both finds himself and, ultimately, loses himself forever.   In some regards, Okondwo’s self-murder is the murder of humanity’s hope:

The fall of the Igbo people—and their once mighty warrior—represents a slower,  more devastating form of humiliation and subtle slavery.  Two passages in particular speak to the colonialist impact:  “And at last the locusts did descend. They settled on every tree and on every blade of grass; they settled on the roofs and covered the bare ground” (71);

“He came quietly and peaceably with his religion. We were amused at his foolishness and allowed him to stay. Now he has won our brothers, and our clan can no longer act like one. He has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart” (164).  The first passage indicates how suddenly these indigenous peoples found themselves in the midst of colonialists (like the locusts), while the second passage laments how easily the outsiders were able to turn loyal tribesmen against one another.

In the story, the tribesmen were at first seduced by the kindly ways of Mr. Brown (who respects the tribesmen yet lures away the tribe ‘outsiders’ first), but then they fall victim to the much more aggressive Reverend Smith.  Once under Smith’s leadership, the tribe converts’ actions become much more disreputable and disloyal (such as when Enoch unmasks the egwogwu), and the leaders of the tribe eventually lose their will to fight the colonialists, leading to Okonkwo’s suicide.  But it is perhaps the final lines of the book which most symbolize the “falling apart” of this once proud people: “He had already chosen the title of the book, after much thought:

The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger” (224). The tribe is reduced to some white man’s conquest, while the very symbol of that tribe’s former strength, Okonkwo, becomes “a paragraph or two”—a mere footnote in colonialist history.   In this sense, Okonkwo’s suffering (like many tragic heroes) is instilled with greater meaning because he serves as a symbol—a symbol of his culture’s greatness and its inevitable, tragic demise.

Two words best summarize the complex creation of Okonkwo:  tragic hero.  Within this man is a piece of every individual, past and present.  The audience relates so well because they see themselves in Okonkwo’s shortcomings, flaws, and basically imperfect human nature.  In watching this memorable character’s own struggles against the   insurmountable, generations of audiences have found an outlet for their own hopes and fears.

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