Birth Order Theory in The Fishermen: A Psychoanalytic Perspective

First acknowledged by Francis Galton in 1874, birth order remains a psychological theory within social sciences today. The theory itself states that the order of the birth of siblings establishes certain predetermined traits for each child. According to psychologist Frank Sulloway, as explained in his publication Born to Rebel: Birth Order, Family Dynamics, and Creative Lives, firstborns tend to be more conservative, supportive of existing authorities and “tough-minded” than their younger siblings (Freese, Powell and Steelman 208).

In the course of The Fishermen, the novel by Chigozie Obioma, birth order is a clear underlying theme that influences family dynamics within the Agwu clan. How do the roles and expectations of the various Agwu brothers Ikenna, Boja, Obembe, and Benjamin, delegated according to their age, affect their relationships and personalities? A significant portion of the identity and behaviour of Benjamin Agwu throughout Fishermen can be explained through birth order theory and its evolvement pertaining to Ben throughout the novel, particularly examining the general role he plays within his family, and through interactions with his siblings, both as a younger-middle child, and when the responsibilities of an elder child are thrust upon him.

Throughout most of Fishermen, nine-year-old Ben Agwu is a quiet observer of his family, and his older brothers especially. The third youngest in a family of six children, he technically occupies the position of a middle child. Ben`s familial role evolves numerous times in the course of the novel, originally introduced, however, as the youngest of the four protagonist brothers. His eldest brother, Ikenna, acts as a leader and example for the rest of his brothers. Boja, the second eldest, is presented as Ikenna’s close confidant, even though he is younger and still considered to be lower in rank: “they had a mutual respect for each other” (Obioma 43). Obembe is treated much like Ben in this brotherly hierarchy, viewed as a younger child, though he still possesses influence over Benjamin because he is older. Ben, the youngest of the four elder brothers, is hardly given say in what he does or when, and is often left to simply follow where his elder siblings lead. If asked by Ikenna and Boja for an opinion, it is often out of obligation and his suggestions are rarely taken under serious consideration because of his comparable youth to the other males in his family. Ben narrates: “I hardly ever saw [Ikenna and Boja] argue, unlike the way they would answer my questions with an outright ‘no’ or ‘wrong’ or ‘incorrect’” (Obioma 43).

A kind of “pack” mentality is prevalent, as the four brothers travel together constantly, acting based on the orders of Ikenna, whom their father has declared to be their leader. “They do whatever you do and go wherever you go. That’s to their credit, the way all of you follow each other” (Obioma 39), Eme Agwu says, summarizing the brotherhood of his sons. Together they fish, plan and execute revenge missions, and embark upon general adventures. Evidence of the influence of birth order is extremely apparent in the examination of the relationship of the Agwu brothers. Ikenna (prior to the detrimental prophecy of Abulu) exhibited several traits noted by Freese, Powell and Steelman to be characteristic of a firstborn, including academic prowess (Obioma 9), support of existing authorities (Obioma 60-61) and heightened responsibilities (Obioma 39). In contrast, Ben, who is the youngest of the Agwu sons that are able to venture independently from their parents, relies seemingly completely upon guidance from his older brothers. Ben alludes to this when he states “I depended mostly on Obembe to help me clarify things” (Obioma 20), and puts it into practice when he struggles to understand his father’s manipulation of the term “fishermen”: “grasping for meaning, I looked at Obembe” (Obioma 37).

In their article “Rebel Without a Cause or Effect: Birth Order and Social Attitudes,” Freese, Powell and Steelman conduct an overall examination of birth order theory, particularly in relation to Sulloway’s studies. Generally speaking, “laterborn” children are expected to be more liberal thinkers, achieve less academically and act less responsibly than their firstborn siblings (Freese, Powell and Steelman 209). In a study conducted on more than 3,800 scientists, however, it was established by Sulloway that laterborn scientists are two times more likely to adopt radical new ideas early on than scientists who were the eldest child. This willingness to embrace new ideas was echoed by Benjamin in his similar quick (and sometimes blind) acceptance of his brother’s schemes. An illustration of this point can be found in Ben and Obembe’s start as fishermen. “Then one day, Ikenna said to Obembe and me: ‘Follow us, and we will make you fishermen!’—and we followed” (Obioma 12) shows the quick acceptance of the forbidden concept of fishing by Ben and Obembe, the younger of the four protagonist siblings, at the mere call of their eldest brother.

The behaviour and responses of Ben and Obembe towards their older brothers display the internal drive the laterborn brothers possess to please Ikenna and Boja. In the acutely felt absence of their father, Ikenna, and Boja to a lesser extent, represent the delegated masculine authority of the Agwu household. Therefore, a certain amount of power is afforded to Ikenna and Boja, resulting in a basic internal desire expressed by both Ben and Obembe to please their older brothers. Ben particularly, as the youngest of the four, has been conditioned to naturally follow the footsteps of his elder siblings so much that it became a key component of what Sigmund Freud identified an individual’s “id”. Ben’s basic human desire for acceptance, affirmation and belonging seek fulfilment through his elder sibling relations.

As the novel progresses, Ben’s world becomes increasingly tumultuous as he loses each of his elder siblings. Initially, the death of Ikenna and the simultaneous disappearance of Boja (later discovered to be a suicide) transition Ben from a position of reliance within his family to a position of influence, leaving both Benjamin and Obembe with greater responsibilities, as Obembe must assume the leadership of his kin, and Ben must become his brother’s supporter in that task. Ben describes the feeling of losing his brothers as “the feeling that a fabric awning or an umbrella under which we’d sheltered all along was torn apart, leaving me exposed” (Obioma 175). He reveals “I had never lived without my brothers… I merely followed their lead… I had lived with them, relied on them so much that no concrete thought ever took shape in my mind without first floating through their heads” (Obioma 272).

The first time Ben truly attempts to assert himself, in fact, comes when he questions Obembe’s insistence in killing Abulu, though he does eventually concede to assist his brother in his murder plot (Obioma 200). Furthermore, when Obembe decides to flee from the consequences of his and Ben’s murder of Abulu, Ben suddenly finds himself not only in a position of greater power, but fully thrust into the role of eldest sibling. He is left to balance his own youth with the new uncertainty of setting an example for his younger siblings, and in representing his family unit. He compares himself to a fragile moth whose wings have been removed, and can “no longer fly, but crawl” (Obioma 272). Yet it is his separation of himself from Obembe, and Ben’s initiative in taking responsibility and facing the consequences for his and Obembe’s act of avengement that Ben finally assumes a position of leadership, asserting his own opinion (Obioma 270).

Comparatively, a parallel to the biblical account of Cain and Abel, found in Genesis 4 can be drawn when considering the theory of birth order. Cain, as the firstborn son of Adam, was regarded with the utmost respect, evidenced by his position in caring for his family’s crops; Abel held the lesser position of tending to “flocks” (Genesis 4:2-3). When time came for presentation of offerings to the Lord, however, God favoured Abel’s offering of “fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock” over the “fruits of the soil” offered by Cain (Genesis 4:4). Traditionally, God’s utmost favour was to be awarded to the firstborn. Abel received the Lord’s blessings, however, because he brought God the best of what he had to offer (fats from his firstborn), whereas Cain brought “some fruits” to God, a considerably inferior offering, as Cain would have had access to reapings deemed more culturally important due to his duties. The resulting inversement of the sibling hierarchy, such that Abel received the Lord’s favour undermined Cain’s authority as the elder brother and his desire for the honour this afforded him societally meant embarrassment and shame for Cain, ultimately manifesting itself in the murder of his brother. Though it was his brothers that experienced a similar parallel and not Ben himself in Fishermen, this biblical comparison illustrates the role birth order can play within sibling relations, sometimes resulting in tension.

Every individual experiences the need for acceptance, affirmation, belonging and safety, among other basic human desires. A core part of a person’s id, these are instinctual inclinations that require regulation by the ego in order for any individual to function within society. Siblings share a unique bond that can satisfy this desire, though the theory of birth order often complicates these relationships as notably evidenced in the brotherly relations within Fishermen, and paralleled in the Genesis account. Benjamin Agwu’s behaviour and the evolution of his identity illustrate in part the impact and importance of birth order pertaining to his kin. This was evidenced in Ben’s role within the Agwu family and through interactions between himself and his brothers, both when he was considered among the younger of his siblings and tasked with little, and as tragic familial circumstances demanded his quick assumption of responsibilities, typical of an elder son. Though only a theory, Ben’s roles and their evolution throughout Fishermen can definitely be attributed, at least in part, to birth order, and the inherent strength of brotherly bonds that cannot be over appreciated.