Human Nature: Inward Questioning v.s. Outward Conformity
Okonkwo is a character in Chinua Achebe’s novel “Things Fall Apart” who attempts to conform outwardly while questioning inwardly, although he definitely might not appear to be at first glance. Okonkwo’s inner conflict caused by the tensions of conformity and personal questioning add to the work by demonstrating that in any culture, there are customs which are not wholly accepted, proving, like human nature, no society is perfect and no rule goes unquestioned.
When Okonkwo adops the young boy Ikemefuna, Okonkwo becomes very fond of him. Inwardly, Okonkwo enjoys Ikemefuna’s manliness and his affect on his other son, Nwoye, as Nwoye looks up to Ikemefuna as a more masculine figure and Nwoye attempts to live up to Ikemefuna as a man, something Okonkwo can truly appreciate and openly take pride in. Okonkwo favors Ikemefuna, taking Ikemefuna on journeys with him. Outwardly, however, Okonkwo believes affection to be a weakness, and so shows none of this emotion. When the tribe orders they have decided to kill Ikemefuna after three years of him living with Okonkwo and his family, Okonkwo is conflicted. He truly cares for Ikemefuna, but joins the party which carries out his killing out of feeling the self-induced pressure of conformity to promote his own success and the success of the tribe. When a party member strikes the first blow and Ikemefuna calls out ‘father they are killing me’ Okonkwo immediately jumps in and finishes Ikemefuna off with his machete, terrified of being seen as weak.
While it appears in the moment Okonkwo wholeheartedly agreed with the elders decision, afterwards, Okonkwo can’t eat or sleep for nearly three days. He is bedridden, his eyes are red, presumably from crying and dealing with intense emotional repercussions of his actions. Outwardly Okonkwo eagerly conforms to the tribes wishes, even too enthusiastically. Debating with his friend Obierika reveals Okonkwo’s inner questioning hidden by his swift, outward conformity. Eager to showcase his strength out of fear of inadequacy, Okonkwo questions why Obierika was not in the killing party. Obierika tells Okonkwo he simply didn’t want to, and counters by telling Okonkwo “If the spirits had ordered my son be killed, I would not have disobeyed, but I would not have done it myself either.” (57). Despite having a strong, masculine, wrestler of a son and a strong suitor for his daughter, (a very outwardly conformist and successful family) Obierika also later questions why Okonkwo the tribe ordered be banished for seven years for an accident which was out of Okonkwo’s control, in much the same vein as Okonkwo painfully inwardly questions why he had to be the one to strike the blow.
This prompts an inner questioning of not necessarily just the spirit’s wisdom or tribe’s wisdom, but why it had to be done, and what makes the spirits so wise. These two instances of questioning by Obierika and Okonkwo prove that Okonkwo’s questioning has found traction and part of the reason ‘things fall apart’ in the tribe was the steep traditions in place were not beyond questioning, because these traditions are not wholly explained and logically agreed upon in a way that appeared fair. While the killing of Ikemefuna is carried out according to a tribal runling, the supposedly absolute decision left room for ambiguity in the form of what action Okonkwo should take, and thus his own imperfect actions left him questioning the imperfections of the decision and his society as a whole. The ruinous masculinity that compels Okonkwo to commit the act is also a product of such an imperfect society as well as Okonkwo’s own inferiority complex, stemming from his father’s ‘failure’ in the tradition of the tribe, proving not everyone can conform. On some level perhaps Okonkwo had the wisdom to inwardly question why his father did not succeed other than his foolish laziness. Perhaps another reason for Okonkwo’s father’s failure was the society he was a part of not offering him the path he needed to succeed.
Okonkwo is outwardly a conformist to the tradition of the tribe he is a part of to the death. But inwardly, he questions the validity of the tribal traditions he so fervently seeks to master better than everyone else and holds sacred above all else. Okonkwo’s questing with other members of the tribe solidify the fact that no tradition, practice or custom, no matter how sacred, goes unquestioned because no no tradition, practice or custom is perfect. Any society, no matter it’s ethnicity or ‘development’ is perfect, because we, as we cannot escape our imperfect human nature.
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