The Issue of Strength and Manliness in Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart”
“Strength, fortitude, or hardiness traditionally associated with men as opposed to women or children” defines the word manliness as well as the Nigerians way of life in the late nineteenth century. If you were a man during this time you would work your whole life to become the most masculine man around and if you were a woman, you would live your life to marry and serve this man. The main hero, Okonkwo in “Things Fall Apart” is considered the epitome of manliness, yet he fears that the public eye will view him as “weak”. Okonkwo wants his masculinity to be understood by all and never be questioned but placing too much emphasis on manliness leads to his world falling apart.
Okonkwo dedicates his whole life to masculinity as did many men in nineteenth century Nigeria. Growing up in this country as a young man meant everything must line up with your tribes view on manliness to obtain respect from your peers. Okonkwo learned at a young age that “his father was agbala … another name for a woman” or an insult towards a man with no title. This information gives him a passion “to hate everything that his father Unoka had loved”. This new-found rage towards his father’s failures sparks a match underneath him. He begins to do everything in his power to be thought of as the strongest and most masculine man around. This image becomes so important to Okonkwo that he does absolutely everything he can to prevent anyone thinking otherwise. This intense determination helps Okonkwo “wash his hands” of his father’s gentleness and “eat with kings”. This shows that his tribe puts one’s manliness before all else and the only way a child of an agbala can gain fame or attention is to completely throw away their old life and build a new one. Washing his hands of his father’s past shows Okonkwo’s desperation to earn a name in the tribe. Earning this name brought him friendships with the kings and acceptance from the Gods. This acceptance brings him the opportunity to take in Ikemefuna, the doomed boy who was sacrificed to the village, as an adopted son.
Okonkwo does not accept any type of failure or weakness even when it comes to his own family. This unacceptance leads him to kill his own adopted son, Ikemefuna, with a machete because “he is afraid of being thought weak” by those watching him. This is the beginning of Okonkwo’s fall, he could not eat or sleep for days, and he could only think of the violence he has committed towards his family. Although he felt this great pain inside him, Okonkwo never for a second regrets what he has done to his adopted son because he believes it has helped his image as a man; instead, he considers himself an “old shivering woman” for still thinking of the murder he has committed. This shows that Okonkwo’s concept of masculinity is so twisted that he is willing to hurt or even kill those he loves to maintain his image. What Okonkwo does not realize is that “he will pay a price because he places too much emphasis on strength and manliness”. His eldest son Nwoye always seemed to struggle with his masculinity because his father forced it on him so harshly. Nwoye wanted to please his father by being a traditional manly son until he sees who his father truly is. When he realized that Ikemefuna is dead “something seemed to give away inside him, like the snapping of a tightened bow” and “the boy was afraid of” his own father. Throughout the novel, Nwoye is pushed by his father to be strong and manly just like him but when his string finally snaps so does his desire to live up to his dad’s wishes.
Nwoye begins to act himself again as a gentler and more sensitive young man instead of continuing to falsely advertise manliness in front of his father. Nwoye and Okonkwo never saw eye to eye on how to be a man which ultimately brings their relationship to an end. Nwoye is never able to forgive his father for the damage he has done by killing his adopted brother, Ikemefuna. The fear and betrayal felt from Okonkwo brought him to seek other welcoming communities. The missionaries gave him the sense of happiness and he was “attracted to the new faith on the very first day” but “he dared not go to close to them for fear of his father”. After Nwoye is spotted with the Cristian’s, Okonkwo is overcome with fury and grips him by the neck until he had no choice but to let him go. Nwoye walked away and never returned not fully understanding what he was doing “but he was happy to leave his father”. Nwoye’s interest in the new faith is not fully understood within himself yet he still leaves his family to pursue it meaning this can also be seen as an attempt to get back at his father for hurting his family. The lose of Okonkwo’s eldest son is another huge step towards his major fall due to the importance of masculinity in his life.Not only did Okonkwo begin to lose his family, but he also began to lose the respect of his tribe. After Okonkwo moves back to his land after seven years away he sees that the “clan has undergone such profound change during his exile that it is barely recognizable”. As he returned Okonkwo expected a grand and memorable entrance back in to the tribe, but people’s minds were too focused on the new government and religion. Even the men who still thought of this religion and government as evil couldn’t think of anything else especially Okonkwo’s anticipated return to the clan. Okonkwo is unable to understand and accept the changes within the tribe and “he mourned for the warlike men of Umuofia who had unaccountably become soft like women”. He wanted to take action and kill everyone who was trying to come in his way of the life he grew up with and could not believe his clan did not feel the same way. As soon as the men returned from being locked up by the District Commissioner, Okonkwo got a sense of excitement because he was expecting a war to begin. He swore vengeance and if his clan “chose to be cowards he would go out and avenge himself”. No one in his tribe wanted to start a war with the white men and Okonkwo did not want to accept this so when the messengers came to stop their gathering he killed the lead messenger. He expected excitement to fill the air but instead, everyone began questioning what he had just done and let the rest of the white men walk away. In this moment, Okonkwo realizes that the masculine reputation he has fought and lost so much for no longer has the same meaning. He later commits suicide showing that he no longer has anything else to live for when his strength and manliness is not held at such high honor anymore.
This “story of Okonkwo is in a way the story of our culture; he pays a price because he places too much emphasis on strength and manliness”. This relates to our culture in many ways especially when it comes to fathers not accepting their gay sons. Sadly, just as Okonkwo’s clan associate’s strength and manliness with the titles they achieve, our culture often associates strength and manliness with being straight. Just like Okonkwo, many men today live their life to be seen as a masculine man and put so much emphasis on that desire that they begin to push away the good in their life. When these men become fathers to gay sons they often do not accept them as their own and feel as though they failed in their masculinity. Although “gay men are seen to break traditional masculinity ideology” it does not make them any less manly and their fathers do not see that. Similar to Nwoye, gay men are no less of a man just because they do not fit the traditional strength associated with a man and similar to Okonkwo these dads do not see it that way. They see their son’s coming out as a defeat on their manliness and therefore they push them away rather than seeing the good in their bravery and courage making them stronger than most men in our world. This newfound broken relationship in their lives often brings sadness and pain into their world leading to them paying the ultimate price for placing too much emphasis on things that should not matter.
Placing too much emphasis on masculinity ultimately leads to a mans fall within family, friends, and society. Okonkwo and fathers today have a desire to become strong which in the end makes them weak. Next time you are deciding one’s strength and manliness do not think of the traditional values associated with men placed in your head by society but think of the qualities that makes that man live the happiest life they can live.
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