The novel begins with the introduction of Okonkwo, a young man famed throughout for his strength as well as other personal achievements. At the age of eighteen, he had brought honor to his village by overthrowing Amalinze, the cat. Okonkwo was a tall man, with bushy eyebrows and a wide nose. His father, Unoka had always been a failure and a debtor. He was more interested in playing his flute than working in the fields. Because of this, his family never had enough to eat and he became a source of shame to Okonkwo. Once when a neighbor called Okoye had come to him to request him to return his money, Unoka had laughed at him and said that he would first pay the others whom he owed more money. After his father’s death, Okonkwo, though young, won fame as the greatest wrestler. Since then, he has become a wealthy farmer, with two barns full of yams. He also had three wives and two honorific titles and was a great warrior. Everybody respected him in the village for his achievements. Chapter 2 Okonkwo had just prepared for bed when the town crier’s voice is heard.
The message is that every man of Umuofia is to meet at the market place the following morning. He wonders whether Umuofia will go to war and thinks how fearful his father was of war and how he himself has been a great warrior in the past, bringing home his fifth human head. The next morning, the marketplace is full of people, and Ogbuefi Ezeugo, a powerful orator, informs them that a daughter of their village had been murdered by some men from Mbaino, the adjoining village, when she visited its market. An ultimatum is given to Mbaino, asking them to choose between war and an offering of a young man and a virgin as compensation. Okonkwo is sent to negotiate. Umuofia is highly feared by its neighbors for its power; therefore Mbaino chooses the latter proposal and Ikemefuna, a young lad of fifteen and a virgin are sent to Umuofia. The girl is sent to the murdered woman’s husband to replace her and Okonkwo is requested to keep the lad for the time being while the villagers decide what to do with him.
Okonkwo hands over the lad in the care of his most senior wife, mother of his oldest son, Nkoye. Ikemefuna is frightened, as he does not understand why he has been separated from his family. Chapter 3 This chapter reveals more details of Okonkwo’s father’s failings and his justification for despising him as he does. At a disadvantage, Okonkwo had not inherited a barn from his father like other young men and had to start with nothing. Once on a trip to the consult the Agbala, the Oracle of the Hills and the Caves to find out the reason for his miserable harvest, Unoka was told that it was because of his laziness and not because he had offended the gods. Unoka was so ill-fated that even his death was an undignified one. He died of a swelling in his stomach and his limbs, a type of disease that resulted in his banishment.
Therefore, he was carried into the forests and left to die. This made Okonkwo feel even more ashamed of his father. Another story reveals Okonkwo’s first signs of ambition and the desire to outlive his father’s legacy. While still young and supporting his mother and sisters, Okonkwo approached a wealthy man, Nwakibie, to earn his first seed yams. Nwakibie gave them to him, knowing him to be trust-worthy and hard working. It was Okonkwo’s bad luck that there was a great drought that year followed by very heavy rains. Both of which contributed to the failure of the season’s harvest. But Okonkwo was a fighter and he survived that year. Chapter 4 Okonkwo was respected by all for his industry and success. In the beginning the boy was afraid, and missed his family. But being a boy of a lively nature, he gradually becomes a part of Okonkwo’s household. Okonkwo’s son Nwoye was always with him wherever he went. Okonkwo also becomes fond of him, but he never shows his emotions, as he considers affection to be a womanly sign of weakness.
When Okonkwo goes to his fieldsto plant the harvest, he takes Nwoye and Ikemefuna with him but he rebukes them if they are slow in understanding what he wants them to learn quickly.When the rains begin great care has to be taken of the young plants. The children then sit around the cooking fire telling stories, or they sit with their fathers, roasting and eating maize. It is during the period of rest that the friendship between Ikemefuna and Nwoye becomes even stronger. Chapter 5 The Feast of the New Yam is now approaching. It takes place just before the harvest and is an occasion of thanksgiving to the earth goddess, Ani. The night before the feast, the old yams are disposed of and on the new year, all the cooking pots are thoroughly washed before being used for the new crop. Yam foo-foo and vegetables soup is prepared. Guests are invited to partake of the food. The walls of the house are decorated with designs and the women and children anoint and decorate themselves. Okonkwo is not very enthusiastic about the feast. He would rather work in his fields.
His suppressed resentment regarding the feast explodes when he thinks that somebody has cut one of his banana trees. When he discovers that the culprit is his second wife, Ekwefi, he beats her and then shoots at her with his gun but fortunately, he misses. In spite of Okonkwo’s outburst, the festival is celebrated with great joy by his family. On the second day, there is a wrestling contest in which Okonkwo participates. Okonkwo’s wives prepare the evening meal and the food is served by each of their daughters. One of his daughters, Ezinma, discusses the forthcoming wrestling contest. Okonkwo is particularly fond of this daughter, but as usual does not show his love for her. Chapter 6 The wrestling contests are to be held on the second day of the festival. Everyone from the village gathers to watch these contests, as they are great sources of pride for the villagers. It begins with boys of fifteen or sixteen who provide some entertainment before the more serious matches.
One of the winners is the son of Obierika, a friend of Okonkwo. Ekwefi, Okonkwo’s second wife, loves the wrestling matches and remembers how she fell in love with Okonkwo when he beat the great wrestler, Cat. Although she was married at the time, she left her husband once she found out Okonkwo had enough money to marry her. Ekwefi meets Chielo, the priestess of Agbala, the oracle, who asks about her daughter’s health. The last match is between Okafo and Ikezue, the leaders of the teams. The earlier year, there had been a draw as they had the same style of fighting but this time, a fierce match ensues and Okafo wins the match. The people sing his praises, carrying him on their shoulders. Chapter 7 Ikemefuna has been living in Okonkwo’s household for three years now. He is like an older brother to Nwoye and has taught him how to be more manly. Okonkwo is glad that Nwoye is developing fast into manhood and he encourages both boys to be masculine and violent.
He tells them stories of conquest and violence and they all make derisive comments about women. Nwoye participates in these activities yet still enjoys his mother’s stories more than his father’s yet he tries to please him and so goes to his hut at night. Months pass, and then the locusts arrive in the village. This arrival is an unexpected one, but the people rejoice because locusts are considered to be very tasty and delectable. When the locusts swarm in and cover the entire area, the villagers slowly creep out and collect as many locusts as they can catch during the night. They are then roasted and spread to dry. It is then eaten with palm oil.Nwoye is terribly upset by the death and feels similar to the time when he had been crossing the forest and heard a thin wail of an infant. Nwoye had known that twins who were born were considered evil and were hidden in earthware pots and thrown into the forest. Hearing the wail, something had given way inside him. Hearing of Ikemefuna’s death, the same feeling rises in him. Chapter 8 Okonkwo is unable to forget Ikemefuna and drowns himself in palm-wine to mitigate his sorrow.
When his daughter Ezinma brings him food, he finds himself wishing that she were a boy. He berates himself for being so weak and lamenting Ikemefuna’s death. Finally, after three days he rouses himself from his sorrow and goes to meet his friend Obierika. Obierika’s son Maduka had won in the wrestling combat and is a promising lad and worthy of his father’s pride. Obierika had refused to accompany the rest of the village in killing Ikemefuna. On being asked why, he replies that he “had something better to do,” and that this deed would not please the Earth because of the men’s actions. But Okonkwo disagrees with him. At that point, Ofoedu enters with the news that an elder, Ogbuefi Ndulue of Ira village had died but the drums had not been beaten because his trusted wife Ozoemena, hearing of her husband’s death, had died too. According to custom, Ndulue’s funeral was to be held off until his wife’s burial. The two men disapprove of the close relationship that this man had with his wife and wonder how such a warrior in battle could be so weak in his marriage.
They also discuss the loss of prestige that goes with one of the titles for tapping wine out of palm trees. Feeling better after their talk, Okonkwo goes home, and then returns in time to help Obierika bargain for the marriage-price of his daughter. The daughter, Akueke has been suitably dressed for the occasion. The dowry is bargained upon and settled at twenty bags of cowries. Food is then brought in and the men make small talk. The first mention of the white man is made, but it is more in jest as the word for leper means “white skin.” Chapter 9 Okonkwo finally sleeps well after three nights but is roused out of his sleep by Ekwefi, his second wife, who tells him that his daughter, Ezinma is dying. He goes out to collect leaves and bark to ease the child’s fever. Ezinma is the center of her mother’s world as Ekwefi has suffered a great deal, having lost nine children in infancy. They had tried all they could to discover what the problem is but all the medicine man could say was that she kept giving birth to an ogbanje, a child who dies young because an evil spirit possesses it and re-enters the mother’s womb to be born again. By the time Ezinma was born, Ekwefi had lost her will and accepted her fate with resignation.
When she lived for six years, her mother realized that she may stay and loved her with all her might. She thought that her troubles had ended when Ezinma’s iyi-uwa was unearthed, but now she is ill again. The iyi-uwu was supposed to break the connection between the objanje world and Ezinma. Okonkwo brings in a bundle of grass, leaves, roots and barks of medicinal trees, puts them in a pot and boils them. Once it is cooked, he rouses Ezinma and makes her sit beside the steaming pot to inhale the steam. A mat is thrown over her head. When the mat is removed, she is bathed in perspiration. Soon she falls asleep after lying on a mat. Chapter 10 A very dramatic public ceremony is described in detail that involves meting out justice. On the village commons, folks gather, with elders sitting on stools and the rest of the village men behind them. Nine stools are placed for the egwugwu to sit. Egwugwu represent the spirits of their ancestors and are respected members of the community who can dispense justice in trials. Women stand on the edges of the circle, looking in the direction of the egwugwu house.
A gong is loudly blasted and the guttural voice of the egwugwu is heard. When he makes his appearance, it is very dramatic as he wears a fearful looking mask and pretends to scare the women. Along with him, nine other masked men emerge. Okonkwo’s wives notice that one of the egwugwu walks with a springy step such as Okonkwo does. They also notice he is absent from where the elders sit.After discussion among the egwugwu, Evil Forest returns with a verdict. He tells Uzowulu to bring wine to his wife’s family and beg his wife to return to him. He also expresses disgust at Uzowulu’s cowardice in beating women and askes him to accept his brother-in-law’s offer. Afterwards, one elders discusses the trivial nature of this case and another says that Uzowulu would accept any decision other than the egugwu. Next a land dispute is discussed. Chapter 11 One night, Ezinma and her mother are sitting in their hut having their supper. Ekwefi is telling a story about a tortoise and birds which explains why the tortoise’ shell is uneven. When she finishes, Ezinma begins her story. Half way through, she has to break off because they could hear Chielo, the priestess of Agbala prophesying, and calling to Okonkwo.
Chielo then enters the hut and insists on talking Ezinma with her since Agbala wanted to see her. Carrying Ezinma on her shoulders, she takes off into the hills. Ekwefi follows her doggedly, though the path is very dangerous and risky. Finally they reach the caves and Chielo enters with Ezinma. Ekwefi is frightened of what might be happening inside. Behind her, she hears a footstep, and finds Okonkwo, who has followed behind her. Both of them wait together outside the cave for Chielo to reappear, and Ekwefi is grateful for his presence. Chapter 12 Okonkwo and Ekwefi wait for Ezinma’s exit from the cave but it is not until the early morning hours that Chielo appears with Ezinma. She doe not acknowledge either of them, but simply walks straight to Ezinma’s hut and puts her to bed. The parents follow behind. That day there is a festive air in the neighborhood as Obierika is celebrating his daughter’s uri, a part of the betrothal ceremony, where the bridegroom brings the palm-wine for the bride’s family, her kin, and extended family. Every family carries some food to the wedding house and the bride’s mother is responsble for preparing the food for everyone. Tripods are exacted for the fire, and food is being prepared by the women.
Ekwefi is tired from the night before and waits until Ezinma wakes up and eats breakfast. Okonkwo’s other wives leave to help prepare the food. By afternoon, two pots of palm-wine arrive from the in-law’s house. Later, the in-laws arrive each carrying a pot of wine. In all, fifty pots are received which is a respectable number. Kola nuts are offered and the betrothal is finalized. A great feast is laid out and everyone partakes in it happily. In the night, the young men start singing, the bride dances and everyone is gay. Chapter 13 In the middle of the night, the sound of a drum and a cannon announces the death of Ogbuefi Ezendu, the oldest man in the clan. Hearing this, Okonkwo remembers his last words to him about Ikemefuna and shudders. The whole village attends the funeral as Ogbuefi was a man with three titles, an achievement that was rare. Since he was a warrior, the funeral abounds in warriors, dressed in raffia skirts.
Once in a while an egwugwu spirit makes its appearances from the underworld. Some of them are quite violent and terrifying and often threatening. The most terrifying one is shaped like a coffin, and a sickly odor emanates from him. The funeral is very befitting of a noble warrior. Before the burial the warriors dance, drums are sounded and guns are fired. A frenzied feeling fills the air as people bemoan the loss of Ogbuefi. The air is full of the smell of gunpowder. In the midst of this ceremony, a cry of agony is heard. Ezudu’s son is found lying dead in the crowd shot by Okonkwo who fired his gun and accidentally hit pierced the young boy’s heart.
Okonkwo knows that killing a member of one’s own tribe is a crime against the Goddess of the Earth and therefore he is banished from his village for seven years. He and his family escape to the village of his mother called Mbanta. After daybreak, the men, dressed in garbs of war, set fire to his house, not due to vindictiveness, but to cleanse the land that Okonkwo had polluted. Obierika, his friend, mourns his friend’s calamity.